In fact, Toyoda’s minority holding brings pressure not felt by controlling families.
“Because they are the owners of the business, their position is guaranteed. But not for me,” Toyoda said. “I have to make sure, day in and day out, that the stakeholders, such as investors, employees, customers, suppliers and whoever, feel happy having me in this position.
“I can always be fired the next day. Often, people in the company or from outside say they envy me because I’m from the family and the president. But believe me, it’s not that easy.”
And it won’t be any easier for whoever succeeds him, Katayama said, because Toyoda’s larger-than-life presence will continue to loom if he stays on, as expected, as chairman.
“Akio has a keen sense of it being a family business. For him, becoming president was almost a birthright,” Katayama said. “So, it will be very difficult for the next president under Akio as chairman. … Whether Akio will be able to nurture his own successor is one of his challenges.”
Yet before any handover, Toyoda has unfinished business. He says he’s getting started on a “full model change” of the company. Looking back at his tenure, Toyoda said he spent the first third reacting to crises — from the financial downturn and Toyota’s sudden-acceleration recalls to the deadly earthquake-tsunami in Japan. The second third was spent regrouping.
Only in recent years, he said, has he begun restructuring Toyota to confront the challenges of tomorrow, including electrification, connectivity and autonomous driving.
“For the past 10 years, I wanted to get ready for the change,” he said. “But I couldn’t do it.”
His mission now: Lay that groundwork so his successor can sprint from the starting blocks.
“I had to start with reforming the company culture to set the stage for the future,” Toyoda said. “By the time I pass the baton to the next-generation president, I hope this cultural reform is completed so they can start sharply focused on the future from day one.”
Naoto Okamura contributed to this report.