LOS ANGELES - Jim Press will bring his aggressive sales and marketing style to the top American executive's spot at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., replacing finance man Yale Gieszl.
Press, whose hard-charging approach rejuvenated Lexus Division, has been Toyota's senior vice president and general manager of automotive operations for the past year. He assumes the executive vice president's post as Toyota is poised for rapid sales and market share growth through a series of crucial product redesigns and new segment entries.
The move was announced to Toyota employees last week and is to become official at Toyota's June board meeting. The change was accompanied by several other executive shifts, including a new vice president of marketing for Toyota Division, that will help Press set the pace.
Gieszl, 57, has been in the top job since 1992, every year of which Toyota and Lexus have combined to sell more than 1 million units. The company has posted sales records for the past three years, breaking 1.36 million units in 1998, and sales are up another 18.3 percent through March.
Gieszl is to become vice chairman of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. for the next two years, then take an advisory role with the company. It is similar to the path taken by Bob McCurry, who stepped aside for Gieszl in 1992.
'After 26 years as an officer, I think it's time for a slower pace and the opportunity to pursue some of my personal interests. Also, Toyota's organization is strong and our business is good. Consequently, it's an excellent time for the transition to a new executive team,' Gieszl wrote in a memo to Toyota employees last week.
Press, 52, joined Toyota in 1970, as did Gieszl. In the shadows for most of his career - taking the typical two- and three-year rotations through departments and regions - Press rocketed to prominence as head of a resurgent Lexus Division in 1995 and in his current position overseeing both Toyota and Lexus divisions.
Press is an approachable, engaging speaker who has replaced a modest public persona with a more confident manner of late. More than just a sales guy, Press immerses himself in the technical details of his vehicles and is known for interviewing everyone at any dealership he visits. He holds a commercial pilot's license, and in the early 1980s he lived on a fishing trawler named Eagle in a Redondo Beach, Calif., marina.
Already a fixture at auto show introductions, Press made headlines earlier this year with a bold prediction that Toyota and Lexus will combine to sell 1.5 million vehicles in the United States next year.
Yoshi Ishizaka, president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., said the U.S. personnel move was made independently of the earlier announcement that Fujio Cho will take over as president of the Toyota Motor parent company, replacing Hiroshi Okuda.
Ishizaka added that Gieszl came to him in December with the request to pare back his duties. In fact, naming Press head of automotive operations last April was the first step by Gieszl to groom a successor, Ishizaka added.
SALESMEN BACK ON TOP
In 1992, when Gieszl took over from salesman McCurry - and conservative president Shinji Sakai simultaneously took over from aggressive Yuki Togo - industry watchers said it was a sign that Toyota wanted to become more fiscally restrained, following its run-up in the 1980s. Indeed, Gieszl's leadership has been portrayed as that of a caretaker, rather than that of an entrepreneur.
When Sakai was promoted back to Japan in 1996 and replaced by Ishizaka, some inside Toyota said that Gieszl's personality would not mesh with the sales and marketing background of Ishizaka, and they predicted a quick changing of the guard. But 1997 and 1998 were years of strong growth at Toyota, and most within Toyota say that the pair has been a good match.
Just the same, Ishizaka and Press are a better fit with Toyota entering a period of product expansion and rapid sales growth, a Toyota source said.
'You pick the leaders based on where the company is going. Yale and Yoshi were the right executives for where the company was. Jim and Yoshi are the right executives for where Toyota is going next,' the source said.
Toyota also announced the following personnel moves last week:
Steve Sturm has been named vice president of marketing for Toyota Division. A fast climber within Toyota, Sturm previously was vice president of the New Era Business Project and before that was corporate marketing manager for Lexus Division during Press' tenure there. Sturm's key task will be to launch an array of products aimed at the youth market.
Dave Illingworth will retain his title as senior vice president of planning and development but also will take on interim responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the New Era Business Project.
Dave Pelliccioni, who had been Toyota Division vice president of marketing, is now vice president of field operations for Toyota Motor Credit Corp.
Robert Weldon, who had been vice president of dealer relations for Toyota Motor Credit, will be executive vice president of Toyota de Puerto Rico. Toyota's U.S. sales arm is taking over the distributorship from an independent distributor group that reported to Japan.