A "China Price" For Toyota

The auto giant is taking its cost-slashing drive to a new level. Can its suppliers match China's cheaper parts?

Five years ago, Toyota Motor Corp. (TM ) stunned the auto world by embarking on a plan to slash costs 30% across the board for the car parts it buys -- from air-conditioning ducts and door-assist grips to windshield wipers. The bold plan to squeeze its own network of traditional suppliers, known as a keiretsu, was designed to make sure the Toyota group would retain its competitive edge against a spate of global auto alliances such as DaimlerChrysler (DCX ), which promised gigantic synergies from their bigger size.

DaimlerChrysler is still struggling to make its merger pay off. But Toyota's cost-cutting program -- dubbed CCC21, or Construction of Cost Competitiveness for the 21st Century -- has been a remarkable success. With just one year to go, the plan is on track to save the auto maker some $10 billion over its five-year time frame. Not only is CCC21 sourcing components more cheaply but Toyota has also improved the parts' quality. The program has even bested archrival Nissan Motor Co. (NSANY ), whose chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, kicked off the savings scramble in 1999 by pledging 20% cuts in procurement costs.

But where does Toyota go from here? Even after putting its supply network through the wringer, Japan's No. 1 carmaker can ill afford to rest easy. Toyota may be under more pressure now to cut costs than when it began CCC21. So the drive is on to replace expensive materials, benchmark Toyota's auto parts against Chinese-level pricing, and squeeze its Japanese suppliers further by relying more on non-keiretsu parts makers. "We need to adjust our cost-cutting drive to meet a whole new set of challenges," says Katsuaki Watanabe, 62, the executive vice-president who helped devise and supervise CCC21. In a sign that streamlining is still a top priority, the company announced on Feb. 9 that Watanabe will take over as president of Toyota from Fujio Cho in June.


Watanabe is a demon at spotting costs that no one even knew existed and eliminating redundancies that few had noticed. Under his prodding, one Toyota CCC21 team disassembled the horns made by a Japanese supplier and found ways to eliminate six of 28 components, resulting in a 40% cost reduction. No part has been too mundane to escape the Watanabe squad's notice. His favorite example: interior assist grips above each door. There once were 35 different grips. Now, Toyota's entire 90-model lineup uses just three basic styles. Toyota gearheads call this process kawaita zokin wo shiboru, or "wringing drops from a dry towel." It's an unending, excruciating process, but essential to Toyota's bottom line.

But even Watanabe needs a new game plan to counter what's coming. Among the most pernicious threats: the surge in prices of crucial items such as sheet steel due to higher costs for raw materials like iron ore and coal. Blame China's voracious demand for steel and a shortage of Asian blast furnace capacity -- factors that are unlikely to go away anytime soon. What's more, the strong yen means Toyota's reported profits from outside Japan come in lower, increasing the pressure to cut expenses.

These burdens come just as the automotive giant's latest cost-cutting push has started to run out of steam. On Feb. 3 the company acknowledged its cost cuts will likely total just $1.7 billion for the fiscal year ending in March, 15% short of its annual target, in large part because of the surge in sheet steel prices. Nikko Citigroup Ltd. notes that the pace of cost cuts has slowed to $388 million in the most recent quarter, down from $582 million a year earlier.

To cope, Watanabe is pushing Toyota to winnow down the number of steel parts it uses in an average vehicle from 610 to about 500, although it won't say by when or how much savings that will net. Toyota will probably turn to more steel substitutes such as aluminum and heavy-duty advanced plastics and resins. Moving away from steel goes hand-in-hand with the company's longer-term goal of cutting the weight of its vehicles to increase fuel efficiency and rust-proof durability.

That said, there's a limit to how many steel parts Toyota can replace. There's also no guarantee that prices of aluminum and petrochemicals won't skyrocket to the point where those materials are no longer cost-effective substitutes.

Something more is needed -- and that's the China benchmark. Under CCC21, Watanabe's lieutenants identified about 180 key parts, then figured out who the world's most competitive suppliers of those parts were -- companies like Robert Bosch of Germany, Delphi Corp. (DPH ), and the Toyota Group's own Denso Corp. The Toyota cost-cutters used this information as the "benchmark" against which Toyota's keiretsu suppliers had to compete. The keiretsu outfits must learn how to meet the benchmark -- or risk losing the business. Toyota worked with affiliate Denso, for example, to consolidate production of air-conditioning vents to just four key styles, down from 27 previously. That resulted in a 28% cost reduction. Watanabe still wasn't happy: He had wanted just three.

Now the exercise goes to a whole new level. The boom in auto production in China is nurturing a car-parts industry -- with both multinational suppliers and local companies -- providing new data on how low prices can go. For now, that's mostly limited to commodity-type components such as assist grips, not high-end modules and core parts like brakes. Toyota officials say the rise of China has raised the bar for its keiretsu suppliers. They increasingly must push their prices toward the Chinese level to keep Toyota's business. "China has become an important new benchmark for us," says Watanabe.

This doesn't mean Toyota will soon start importing all its parts from China for use in its Japanese and U.S. factories. Analysts say it may be a decade before the parts makers in China can go toe-to-toe with components made in Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. The ultralow defect rates for parts made in Japan, for example, can be as important to cutting prices as cheap fixed costs. Even so, benchmarking against the Chinese price forces suppliers to come as close as possible to matching it without sacrificing quality. That involves rethinking everything, from the number of designers assigned to making any one part, to the supply chain involved in sourcing components, to the utilization rates of equipment at a parts factory.

The China benchmark will increase the pressure on Toyota's traditional suppliers. But so will the company's efforts to court more non-Japanese suppliers to find the best price. And parts makers like Bosch and Delphi, which turn out everything from air bags to transmissions, are now more willing to meet demanding specifications. Bosch, for example, supplies the complete brake system for the Toyota Avensis sedan and the diesel-injection system for the Toyota Yaris subcompact, both made in Europe. Toyota won't say how much of its parts purchasing comes from its keiretsu versus outsiders, but non-Japanese suppliers are eager to win a bigger share. No wonder: The auto maker expects its global sales to hit 8.5 million vehicles by next year, about 1 million more than in 2004. That will put it on par with General Motors Corp. (GM ), the world's largest carmaker. "Toyota is an important customer for Bosch," says Bernd Bohr, chairman of the company's automotive group. "We maintain a close cooperative relationship with Toyota and in development projects."

Non-keiretsu suppliers see their best chance in markets where Toyota is expanding fastest, especially China, where the Japanese auto maker is eager to catch up with established rivals like GM and Volkswagen. "This is a great opportunity for outside suppliers to increase their business with us," says Watanabe. Those suppliers would love ultimately to win orders on a global basis -- including in Japan, where local suppliers account for all but a fraction of the auto giant's parts purchases.


To show the depth of its commitment, Delphi now sends technicians to Toyota headquarters in Toyota City to collaborate on the blueprints for new parts, and invites Toyota execs to tour its plants and offer suggestions for improving productivity and increasing quality. Although Delphi won't disclose how much business it does with Toyota, less than 10% of its roughly $1 billion in Asian revenue comes from the Japanese. The company, however, says it has high hopes for supplying more to Toyota from its 13 plants in China. "We are becoming part of Toyota's extended keiretsu family," says Choon T. Chon, president of Delphi's Asia Pacific unit. And part of Watanabe's ruthless drive to cut costs to the bone.

By Chester Dawson in Toyota City, with Karen Nickel Anhalt in Berlin

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