A white, button-down shirt, dark blue suit, and modest demeanor are business camouflage for Akio Toyoda, who doesn't like to stand out from the other managers at Toyota Motor Corp.'s (TM ) headquarters in central Japan. But everyone knows the grandson of Toyota's founder isn't just another salaryman. "I try not to think about my heritage," says Toyoda, 44. "But I'd be lying if I said nobody around me is conscious of it."
Toyoda, however, is attracting attention for reasons other than his name--and it doesn't have much to do with cars. He heads an Internet venture called Gazoo.com, one of Japan's hottest Web sites. Started five years ago as a database for used cars, it is now a cybermall with almost 1 million registered members, offering Web shops for DVDs, used books, and PCs. Links with Toyota's new credit and brokerage units allow Web surfers to make payments without typing in credit card numbers and to apply for loans. Surprisingly, Gazoo doesn't sell Toyota cars.
Toyoda acknowledges that the venture has yet to turn a profit. But he notes that Gazoo has come a long way since 1996, when he and a group of employees scraped together about $1,700 to build the first Toyota showroom terminal prototype with off-the-shelf computer parts. Now, there are 3,200 stand-alone Gazoo terminals throughout Japan, most located in Toyota dealerships and convenience stores. "People assume that Gazoo sprang from Toyota's flush war chest," he says, "but we toiled without much funding before finally selling management on the concept."
Toyota's chief Internet guru doesn't spend all his time brainstorming with Gazoo's core of thirtysomething staff. Last summer, Toyoda became the youngest member of Toyota's board of directors. That appointment led to speculation that he was being groomed to become CEO. Officials acknowledge family ties played a role in his promotion, even though the clan now owns just 1% of the stock.
Both Toyota Motor President Fujio Cho and Chairman Hiroshi Okuda--neither from the founding family--have made it clear that job performance will be the sole criterion for any further moves up. That's fine with Toyoda. "I'm not thinking about personal goals at this stage," he says. "I'm just happy doing whatever I can for the company as sort of a jack-of-all-trades." Sounds a bit too modest for a Toyoda on the rise.