Koji Sato named Toyota CEO; Akio Toyoda becomes chairman

Sato must also plot a path toward a carbon neutral future, while balancing the wide customer needs of the automaker and fending off nimble new rivals from Silicon Valley, China and beyond.

Sato will have to reinvent Toyota for a new era while retaining all the corporate culture that has been the secret to the automaker’s success for so long.

Toyoda is the grandson of Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder of the car company, and the son of Shoichiro Toyoda, a past president of the company until 1992. Toyoda’s shift to the supervisory role of chairman hands control of day-to-day operations to a non-family member for the first time in a decade.

Toyoda took over his family’s namesake automaker just as it was slumping to its first operating loss in 70 years amid the depths of the global financial crisis.

He soon faced another trial with the 2010 recall upheaval surrounding claims of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Then, the 2011 earthquake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown triple punch throttled the entire Japanese industry, throwing Toyota into defense mode.

“There was never a day that was peaceful,” Toyoda said, looking back.

Toyoda reacted by taking an “intentional pause” on rampant expansion to regroup by nailing down quality and improving product. By pursuing a more sustainable pace, Toyota soon was on the path toward new heights of earnings, sales and accolades.

In recent years, Toyoda has stepped up its race in electrification, investing billions of dollars in electric cars and batteries toward the goal of selling 3.5 million EVs a year in 2030. 

In recent years, as Toyoda passed his 60th birthday, speculation began to mount about the eventual handover of the helm. When questioned about his succession plans at last summer’s annual shareholder’s meeting, Toyoda demurred from a straight answer but said the next president must have an “unshakable conviction on why Toyota exists.”

Sato has a engineering degree from Japan’s prestigious Waseda University and joined Toyota in 1992. He was appointed chief engineer of Lexus International Co., where his noted works included leading development of the super sexy Lexus LC coupe.

He became president of both Lexus International Co. and Gazoo Racing Company. In those roles, he can often be seen hobnobbing with Toyoda trackside at various racing event, some of which Toyoda participates in as a driver of developmental carbon neutral cars.

In closing working with Toyoda, Sato has imbibed much of his outlook and ethic, indicating he will champion key elements of the Toyota way. Speaking of his boss in an interview last year, Sato said, “He is the guiding person showing the team the vision and philosophy of the brand… Akio’s sensors as the master driver are critically important.”

Yet, Sato is also a leader not afraid to shake things up.

In speaking to Automotive News shortly after he took over Lexus, he said Toyoda tasked him with one simple straight-forward mission: “Make some change.” At Lexus that translated into something sexy.

“If the question is eco or emotion, I choose emotion,” Sato said.

Toyoda said it would be important of Sato to manage the company as a team, not as a one-man show. The marching orders may signal a contrast to Toyoda’s own management style.

“Up until now, I was able to use my own personal skills to lead the company to this point,” Toyoda said. “But I think it shouldn’t always be under me. There should be a new team that combines their strengths and brings Toyota to the next stage.” 

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