Toyota ‘prince’ takes wheel of automaker at a crossroads

The "prince" is taking the wheel of Toyota as the world’s largest automotive manufacturer stands at a crossroads.

Akio Toyoda, the grandson of company founder Kiichiro Toyoda, was formally approved as president of Toyota Motor Corp. on Tuesday by the company board. Toyoda, 53, has been with the company for 24 years. Nicknamed “the prince” by Japanese media, Toyoda is the first family member to run the company in 14 years. (His grandfather slightly altered the family name when christening the company “Toyota,” which has eight brush strokes in Japanese — a fortuitous number). Toyoda takes the helm of a company whose current fortunes are decidedly mixed. Last year, Toyota became the world’s largest carmaker, overtaking General Motors for the first time. Unlike GM, which filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this month, Toyota was ahead of the eco-wave by becoming the industry leader in hybrid cars, led by Prius. But like other global automakers, Toyota has been hit by the financial crisis, posting its first ever loss annual loss of $4.5 billion for the year ending March 31; the company lost $7.7 billion alone in the first three months of this year. The company’s perch on the industry’s pole position also faces a long-term threat due to its relatively weak market share in emerging markets such as China, Russia and Brazil, analysts said. “Toyota’s current strengths are its technological improvements, which you see with the Toyota Prius with hybrid cars,” said Yoshiaki Kawano, an automotive analyst with CSM Worldwide in Tokyo.

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In Japan, the company has 180,000 orders for its new Prius model, which sells for below $20,000. “They cut the price by $3,500 to remain competitive,” Kawano said. “On the other hand, the company’s weakness is dependence on the North American region and Japan,” he added. “For getting into developing markets like China, they came in slower than Volkswagen and GM.” Putting the wheel back in the hands of the founding family sends a “back to basics” message for the company, Kawano said. “He’s a car guy … he’s not going to get the company involved in selling houses and motorboats,” he said. Strategically, it is an ideal time to put the relatively young Toyada in place, Kawano said. “I don’t think it’s going to get any worse than now, so there’s nowhere for him to go but up,” he said.