Shoichiro Toyoda, Japanese businessman, 1925 – 2023

On his first foreign business trip to the USA in the late 1950s, Shoichiro Toyoda made one of the biggest mistakes of his career.

Toyoda, then 32, gave Toyota the green light to export its first passenger car, the Crown, to America – only to be inundated with customer complaints that the engine wasn’t powerful enough to drive on US highways.

“It was a huge failure,” Toyoda wrote in his 2015 book Believe in the future step by step. “But I took an important lesson and continued my challenge to create a high-quality passenger vehicle that would perform well anywhere in the world.”

This challenge carried one of the last great Japanese industrialists of the post-war period through the height of trade tensions between Washington and Tokyo in the 1980s, the bursting of Japan’s real estate and stock market bubbles, and the banking crisis of the 1990s that plunged the country into a long period of stagnation .

Two Asian men in suits watch vehicles drive past a production line
Toyoda, left, inspects a light truck production line at a Taiwan plant in 1988 © Yang Chi-hsien/AP

Toyoda, who passed away at the age of 97, navigated these events with a determined focus on quality, cost-effectiveness and people. He laid the foundation for the transition of the group, which his grandfather Sakichi Toyoda had originally founded as a loom manufacturer, to become the world’s top-selling automobile manufacturer.

“He made Toyota the world’s leading car manufacturer and led Japan’s automotive industry. As Chairman of the Keidanren Business Association, he has also been a driving force behind the Japanese economy and made significant contributions,” said Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Toyoda was born in 1925 in the city of Nagoya. As the eldest son of the automaker’s founder, Kiichiro Toyoda, he had hoped to pursue a career independent of his family business after earning his engineering degree from Nagoya University and his PhD from Tohoku University.

A woman in a hard hat is flanked by two men in suits holding shovels over fresh earth

Eiji Toyoda, left, with Kentucky Gov. Martha Layne Collins and Shoichiro at a press event in 1986 to initiate construction of a factory in Georgetown, Kentucky © Tom Moran/AP

But when Toyoda was 27 years old, his father died suddenly. He was called to join the group and learned how to run the car business from Eiji, his father’s cousin.

“My father never told me to go to Toyota and I had no intention of doing so. If he were alive and well, I probably would have taken a different route,” Toyoda wrote in 2015.

Still, after the disastrous first attempt to break into the US market, Toyota returned in 1968 with the Corolla, which would go on to become the best-selling car of all time.

Toyoda assumed the position of President of Eiji in 1982 and led the company until 1992, overseeing the expansion of Toyota’s global manufacturing presence in North America, Europe and Southeast Asia.

“Toyota’s global strategy began under Mr. Eiji, but it was Mr. Shoichiro who accelerated it,” said Takashi Kamio, a former Toyota communications manager who has worked with Toyoda for four decades.

In 1984, as Japanese automakers were grabbing market share from a beleaguered Detroit industry and US protectionism was mounting, Toyota formed a joint venture with General Motors in California. When the company began production at its Kentucky facility four years later, Toyoda pledged to “work hard to become a good citizen of Kentucky and America.” In 1989, Toyota, until then known for affordable compact cars, expanded its US offering with the introduction of the upscale Lexus brand.

At home, Toyoda used his influence as head of Japan’s business lobby Keidanren to pressure the government for lower corporate taxes and deregulation in the mid-1990s. Over time, Toyota became a model for corporate Japan. The company also built a complicated network of cross-shareholdings that later raised questions about its governance structure.

A man in a suit is driving a car

Shoichiro unveils the Toyota Grandpa model in Tokyo in 2000 © Reuters

But Toyoda himself will be largely remembered as a humble man who enjoyed being challenged and was generous with his time. “He was like an emperor in the business world, but Mr. Shoichiro was always considerate and everyone relied on his advice,” said Toshinobu Obata, chairman of Meidai, the assembly that helped build Toyoda’s house in Aichi.

Toyoda served as chairman of Toyota for seven years until 1999, retaining the title of honorary chairman until his death. He is survived by his wife and daughter, and son Akio, who will step down in April after nearly 14 years as President of the company.

“I consult my father on various things, but he’s not the kind of person to give answers,” Akio said in 2014. “There are still many areas that I commend to our honorary chairman, who has brought the Toyota Group so far led, do not understand. ” Shoichiro Toyoda, Japanese businessman, 1925 – 2023

Adam Bradshaw

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