TOKYO -- Not long ago, Nissan's foreign-born CEO, Carlos Ghosn, was a Japanese sensation.
The charismatic leader swooped in to save a national icon from bankruptcy. And he soon was hailed the rock star CEO by a doting public and glorified as the hero in a comic book series.
Now Akio Toyoda -- president of rival Toyota Motor Corp. and grandson of that company's founder -- is quickly emerging as a celebrity CEO in his own right.
Consider his reception last weekend at the annual Toyota Gazoo Racing Festival for car buffs at the Fuji Speedway Formula One circuit just southwest of Tokyo.
In a fireproof race suit with sparkling silver trim befitting an Elvis costume and his name emblazoned across the back, he revved up a crowd of 20,000 race fans.
First came his grand entrance: flooring the company's new sporty coupe, a fire orange Toyota 86, down the main straightaway threading a lineup of Lexus LFA supercars.
Then his dismount: slowly unfastening the multiple straps on his crash helmet before yanking it off, jumping onto the door sill and pumping his fist in the air for the cheering crowd.
Next, a pair of leggy Gazoo Girls, the leather-clad race queens of Toyota's Gazoo Racing team, quickly scampered to his side with a parasol to shield the chief from the sun.
But he really turned on the charm when the public was allowed on the track to walk the pits with him. He was mobbed by the young and old, male and female. And the affable executive happily posed for pictures with the swarms of adoring fans and signed countless autographs -- on programs, photographs, baseball caps and even teddy bears.
Sure, it was a Toyota-friendly crowd.
But it was a remarkable reception for anyone in Japan, where the traditionally dour, black-suited corporate executive does little to inspire facial recognition by the public -- let alone passion.
Go-go Akio could be he next rock star CEO.
He clicks with people because he is friendly and approachable. And because his background is in sales and marketing, he is more of a people person than the typical gearhead engineer.
What's more, he exudes an air of excitement thanks to his mania for anything with four wheels. His love of racing makes Toyoda a superb ambassador for his company as it seeks to spice up its dowdy image. And he's also a superb ambassador for driving in a country where automakers are fighting perpetually slowing sales and a younger generation not interested in cars.
Finally, he carries the pseudo-royal élan of being scion to the carmaker's founding family.
In an interview this month, Toyoda told Automotive News he sees himself as the last line of defense for his namesake company. In fact, he compared himself to a feudal era samurai warrior who risks his life to fend off attackers so his own people have time to flee.
The epiphany came last year when he testified before Congress about Toyota's recall crisis. "I am the person who has to defend and protect the company when the chips are down," he said.
And he seems to be adjusting very well to that new high profile public persona.
In an annual survey of global CEOs most admired by the Japanese public, Toyoda ranked No. 3 last year -- while Ghosn finished No. 9. This year's study, done by the Sanno Institute of Management, a Tokyo business school, is expected out in December.
It will be interesting to see how the two celebrity auto execs fare in 2011.