Toyota's quiet hero
Don Esmond's 30-year career with company ends with tribute from dealers
LOS ANGELES -- Don Esmond was known for an easy smile, quiet demeanor and low-key public persona during his 30 years at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. He was content to blend into the team effort.
But Esmond, who retired this summer as senior vice president for automotive operations, spent those three decades in some of the most pressure-packed jobs at Toyota, at the toughest times.
"I should have retired three years ago," the 68-year-old says. But the company needed his guidance during the unintended acceleration recall crisis and the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake.
"The last three years were a bitch," says Esmond, who is staying on as an adviser. "But the Marine in me didn't want to miss the fight."
A quick review of Esmond's career shows someone always in the thick of the fight. He was:
General Manager of Toyota Division during the launch of the Scion youth brand, the first full-sized Tundra pickup and the first-generation Prius hybrid.
Leader of the "large car team" that launched the 1997 Camry, which wrested the best-selling-car title from the Honda Accord and never looked back.
Vice president of sales for the launch of the Lexus brand.
Overseer of the industry's first certified pre-owned vehicle program, for Lexus.
But Esmond says all the boardroom drama those jobs entailed are nothing compared with the 900 harrowing helicopter missions he flew during the Vietnam War -- shuttling food, water, ammo and mail to the troops and evacuating the casualties, often under heavy fire.
"From the Marines I learned values and leadership skills," Esmond says. "It helped me through my career. We're in the people business. That's the strongest thing we have. The Marines put people first, lead by example and work as a team. During tough times, it truly is a partnership."
Ask Esmond for a career highlight and he doesn't talk about individual accomplishments. Instead, he brings up the next generation of leadership that he helped train.
Esmond runs down a list of the heavy-hitters now in key posts at Toyota: "Jim Lentz, Bob Carter, Bill Fay, Mark Templin. If I had anything to do with helping them develop their leadership skills, that's what I'm most proud of."
Carter, who assumes Esmond's job, says of his predecessor: "Don had a way of convincing people that it's a big hill to climb, but that we could do it.
"It's not about pressure because that is not his way," Carter says. "But you don't want to be in a position where Don has to ask you to do the same thing twice behind closed doors. Don is driven by a tremendous amount of accountability. The Marine is still in there."
When Esmond arrived at Toyota in 1982 -- after more than a decade spent in Ford regional fleet offices -- Toyota Motor Sales was little more than a distributor of Japan-built vehicles. During his career, Esmond has helped Toyota transform into a juggernaut.
Dave Illingworth, who was general manager of the Lexus brand at its startup in 1989, recalls Esmond's dogged persistence as vice president of sales during the first year.
"When we started Lexus, the LS 400 was a tremendous car, but the ES 250 was not up to the same standard," Illingworth said. "We needed to sell 20,000 ESs in our first year to hit our goal, and that was some tough sledding. Don was a big part of getting us there."
For the record, Lexus sold 22,433 ES 250s in its first full year.
Illingworth says Esmond combined a consensus-building style with a "refusal to give up."
"They may seem like opposite qualities," Illingworth says, "but they worked together."
Of course, it wasn't all glory days for Esmond. He had to push some mediocre products, such as the underpowered FX16 hatchbacks, as well as the early Toyota minivans, which were midengine, rear-wheel drive and required the owner to lift the seat to check the oil.
And it still rankles that the first-generation Prius wasn't named 2001 North American Car of the Year.
"It was a huge new step for Toyota and the industry, and it lost to PT Cruiser," Esmond says. "Give me a break."
Esmond was always a dealer guy. He was their voice in Torrance.
"He was every dealer's best friend," says Fritz Hitchcock, a multiline dealer in Puente Hills, Calif. "You always felt that Don represented the very best of the Toyota factory-dealer partnership."
He calls Esmond "the champion for price negotiations between Torrance and Japan."
Penske Motor CEO Greg Penske says: "He always maintained an upbeat personality about getting through tough times and being realistic about the situation at hand."
Dealers' respect for Esmond was on display at the recent national dealer meeting in Las Vegas. Without Esmond's knowledge, Toyota contacted the Marine Corps to establish an endowed scholarship in Esmond's name.
When dealers were quietly notified of the honor, they contributed nearly $1 million to the Don Esmond Lead and Succeed Scholarship Fund, which will give particular attention to children of Marines killed or wounded in combat. Esmond was told of the fund's creation while onstage at the dealer meeting, an emotional moment.
Esmond has maintained a strong commitment to the Marine Corps throughout his business career.
"The troops make a lot of sacrifices," says Esmond, his voice catching. "I experienced it when I was [in Vietnam] with a 1 1/2-year-old son. I know what they are going through. I was pretty bitter for a long time. Most people want to help, but don't know how. I can point them in the right direction."
Esmond was a driving force for the Hiring Our Heroes initiative, partnering with Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Dakota Meyer and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to help discharged veterans find work when they come home. Much focus is given to how to translate military talents to civilian equivalents.
"How do you put 'Marine sniper' on a resume?" Esmond says. "But think of what that entails. Detail planning skills, teamwork, leadership, discipline, under harsh circumstances. Translate that to a resume. These kids have a lot of responsibility at an early age. They have confidence. They are good employees. They post. They are drug-tested."
Esmond knows what he is talking about. When he came out of the Marines in 1972, he was a captain with 250 men reporting to him. But his first job was as a Ford trainee, scheduling fleet sales of Mercury Capris in Seattle. Retiring with his wife of 46 years, Cheryl, at his side, Esmond departs Toyota a happy man.
"The greatest compliment to any leader is to walk away and not be missed," Esmond said. "This organization isn't going to miss a beat."
You can reach Mark Rechtin at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Mark on