'Captain Crunch': Tough marketer puts Toyota on new course
McCurry made Japanese bosses think American
On that landmark day in November 2006, the man largely responsible for getting Toyota into the full-sized-pickup market was being laid to rest halfway across the country.
The irony was bittersweet, kind of like Thomas Jefferson dying on the Fourth of July. Bob McCurry couldn't have timed it better if he'd tried.
For 11 years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, McCurry's brash, booming voice implored the Japanese automaker to broaden its lineup and make its vehicles more appealing to Americans.
It was his personal quest to bring Toyota into the luxury arena with Lexus. He won the battle to make the 1992 Camry more pleasing to U.S. tastes, a change that catapulted the vehicle to the top of the American car market.
And now, more than a decade later, Toyota finally was producing a competitive pickup. As one dealer noted when the Tundra debuted at the 2006 Chicago Auto Show, "This is really McCurry's truck."
At the time of his death, McCurry, 83, was an adviser to Toyota. He had retired in 1993 as executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.
The 1992 Camry was a tribute to McCurry's persistence.
In 1989, when he saw an early design idea for the vehicle, McCurry thought it looked too small and too square. In other words, too Japanese. He wasn't afraid to make his opinion known.
McCurry and close colleague Yukiyasu Togo, then president of Toyota's U.S. sales operation, wanted a curvier, roomier vehicle for U.S. drivers. They presented their case to Toyota Motor Corp. President Shoichiro Toyoda.
"That sort of thing just isn't done," McCurry said. "We really bent some noses."
It was up to Yoshio Ishizaka, then senior vice president and chief coordinating officer of Toyota Motor Sales, to try to soothe the situation.
ROCKING THE BOAT
"Some were very much offended by McCurry's comments," Ishizaka, 67, recalled in a recent interview with Automotive News. Ishizaka tried to justify McCurry's argument by pointing to a larger vehicle being sold in Japan, the Windom, as an example of what Americans were looking for.
Japanese customers thought the vehicle was too wide, but Ishizaka argued that for Americans, it was perfect.
Designers went back to the drawing board and came up with two versions of the Camry, one for the United States and another for Japan.
THE CHRYSLER DAYS
Before he joined Toyota, McCurry made a name for himself at Chrysler Corp., his employer for 28 years. There, he was known for his sales and marketing prowess.
In 1975, McCurry revolutionized the way the Detroit 3 sell vehicles by offering the first customer rebates in the modern auto industry. Recall the TV commercials featuring sportscaster Joe Garagiola as a carnival huckster encouraging people to "Buy a car. Get a check." Love them or hate them, 32 years later, the rebates are still around.
McCurry even flirted with the idea of selling cars personally. When he announced plans to retire from Chrysler in 1978, he said he would look for opportunities to become a dealer in California or the Southeast.
Which franchise, he said, "doesn't matter really, but it will probably be a Dodge, because I'm a truck man."
Instead, McCurry surfaced a year later at Mid-Atlantic Toyota, an independent distributorship that handled Toyota products in five states.
It was there he came to the attention of Toyota Motor Sales.
TRUCKS WERE A KEY FACTOR
Before McCurry, Toyota was largely an import company that placed little emphasis on marketing, says Don Esmond, 63, Toyota Motor Sales senior vice president of automotive operations. Trucks would prove key to McCurry's strategy.
Import restrictions meant Toyota was selling all the cars it could bring to the United States, Esmond says. "So we didn't have that fine edge in terms of marketing skills. We knew we could get only so many cars, so how do we grow?
"We grow on the truck side. That's where the opportunity was and where the organization learned its marketing skills."
McCurry also focused on building a strong dealer body.
"Not everyone was standing in line to get a Toyota franchise," Esmond says. "Some lumber companies were selling Toyotas in the back room. Bob started a push to get more aggressive dealers and weed through dealers who were clipping coupons and complaining because they (were) not allocated enough black Corollas as opposed to going out and actually selling something.
"We were adding people who were coming from a variety of different roots."
Toyota dealer David Wilson remembers McCurry as a friend and father figure. In a eulogy, the owner of David Wilson Automotive Group in Orange, Calif., praised his mentor and golf partner as "the ultimate leader."
"By sheer force of will, he took Toyota from being an import with a minor share of the market and built a foundation for what will soon be the number-one automotive company in the world," Wilson said. "And he was determined to see that those of us he cared about came along for the ride."
McCurry was known in the industry as "Captain Crunch," a nickname that fit his hard-driving style. McCurry wasn't afraid to throw his weight around while running Toyota's sales operation. Underperforming dealers didn't last under McCurry.
'IN A COLD SWEAT'
"Toyota changed a lot when McCurry arrived. We went from management by objective to management by fear," says Lee Sawyer, a service manager for Toyota in the 1970s and 1980s. Another associate told Automotive News last year: "Many a manager from those days can still wake up in a cold sweat from memories of having to sit next to Bob on a cross-country flight. From wheels-up to touchdown, the flight would be their crucible."
And John Turmell, whom McCurry called his "Mr. Fix-it," recalls: "There was never, ever any doubt where you stood with Bob. I heard that Chrysler regional guys would hide in their cars so that Bob couldn't find them (when he would call the regions). This was back before cell phones, so they could get away with it."
But McCurry was hardest on those he liked, Wilson said in the eulogy. "I know firsthand that he was only really hard on you if he cared. If he knew you had potential, if he genuinely cared about you, he was relentless.
"If he wasn't pushing you, he'd already written you off; you weren't worth his efforts and weren't likely to be a part of his team."
To McCurry, Wilson said, the term "low volume" was profanity.
Captain Crunch had been a football captain. He spent three seasons leading the football team at Michigan State University. The Detroit Lions offered him a contract in 1948. He turned it down.
GIVING JAPAN THE WORD
McCurry served in the Army Air Corps. After getting his bachelor's degree in business administration from Michigan State in 1950, he joined Chrysler as a district sales manager in Wisconsin. He rose through the ranks, heading Dodge and later becoming group vice president of sales, parts and service for all of Chrysler's divisions in North America.
After leaving Chrysler, McCurry did a short stint as manager of a Toyota distributor. He joined Toyota Motor Sales as general manager of the Los Angeles region in 1982.
Esmond recalls: "Our customers were young boomers who had bought Corollas and Tercels. As they grew up, we realized that if we were going to take care of our customers, we needed to look at the same markets they were looking at. We needed to give them something to step up to, like Camry, Avalon, Van, SUV and, finally, a full-sized truck. It was a natural evolution.
"McCurry was instrumental in pointing out those opportunities to Toyota Motor Corp. TMC had the trust to go out of its comfort zone."
In an Automotive News commentary 18 years before his death, McCurry predicted Toyota would continue to be a market leader.
"We know that when the smoke clears, some franchises will be much stronger than others," he wrote. "But Toyota will remain on top. We're growing, getting bigger and stronger and becoming more of an American entity."
You can reach Leslie J. Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Leslie on