Toyota president battles crisis in family company

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TOKYO --- Akio Toyoda's appointment as the president of Toyota last June was full of promise. The grandson of the automaker's founder, he was expected to boost morale for the rank and file and help steer the company through a brutal slump in the auto market.

Toyota Motor Corp. Executive Vice President Akio Toyoda (center) joins hands with President Katsuaki Watanabe (left) and Chairman Fujio Cho after a news conference.   Associated Press
Associated Press
Toyota Motor Corp. Executive Vice President Akio Toyoda (center) joins hands with President Katsuaki Watanabe (left) and Chairman Fujio Cho after a news conference.

Eight months later, he is being criticized as slow and indecisive as Toyota Motor Corp. grapples with the worst crisis in its 70-year history -- global recalls ballooning to 8.5 million vehicles over four months. Its reputation for high-quality, reliable cars has been tarnished.

Toyoda, 53, said Thursday that he plans to testify at a U.S. congressional hearing next week about the automaker's recalls in the United States.

The announcement came two days after he said he wouldn't and follows an onslaught of criticism from both the Western and Japanese media about his reluctance to go to Washington.

Toyoda will testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee next Wednesday. By issuing the invitation, the committee had essentially forced Toyoda to testify.

"I am hoping our commitment to the United States and our customers will be understood," Toyoda told reporters. He said he intends to explain steps the company is taking to improve safety, which includes a special committee he is leading.

Toyoda was criticized for being absent as the recalls surfaced in the U.S. in October. He did not speak publicly until January, when he was cornered by a Japanese TV crew at a conference in Davos, Switzerland.

Toyoda's testimony will be his first time addressing lawmakers and American consumers in the U.S. since the recalls began in October.

In Japan, Toyoda is viewed as colorful and approachable. Vocal about his love for sports cars and racing, he has appeared in racing outfits and zipped around test-drive courses in prototype vehicles.

He was an active blogger until the recent crisis and pioneered efforts in the 1990s to build Toyota's brand on the Internet.

In 1998, he founded an Internet retail business called Gazoo.com that sold Toyota cars, as well as plastic models, music CDs and even laundry detergent.

He earned his business degree at Babson College in Massachusetts after studying at Japan's prestigious Keio University. He headed Toyota's joint venture with General Motors Co., New United Motor Manufacturing, in Fremont, Calif., in the late 1990s.

Despite his experience in the U.S., Toyoda's English was jumbled and halting during his first news conference on the recalls earlier this month, and he stuck mostly to Japanese. At a second news conference, his English was stronger but he read from a prepared script.

Josephine Cooper, Toyota's group vice president for public policy and government and industry affairs, said Toyoda may bring a translator when he testifies before Congress next week.


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