LOS ANGELES - Yoshimi Inaba's baritone resonates throughout the room, like that of a late-night disc jockey on a jazz radio station. It seems somewhat fitting.
After all, at Toyota these days, everything is cooool, baby.
The new president and CEO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. has taken command of a company on a roll. Toyota and Lexus are on pace for another record-setting year. Every new product seems to be hitting the mark. Eleven new or redesigned products are on the way in the next 18 months. And he and right-hand man Jim Press are aggressive thinkers bent on growth.
But when scenarios seem too rosy, they often are. That's why Inaba carries a strong air of caution in his outlook.
'I was a bit nervous that things might be too good. I have confidence in the fundamentals of the American economy. But I know this can't go on forever,' the 53-year-old Inaba said in a recent interview.
One main concern: Toyota is a favorite among baby boomers, but it still needs work in connecting with younger generations.
'We're covering all the major segments and will be reinforcing those products in the next few years, so there are no big holes. But we are weaker in the younger segment of customers, especially compared to Honda,' Inaba said.
He is heartened by the initial work of Toyota's Genesis group in aiming for younger buyers with the new Echo and Celica. But he also knows it will take more than just a couple of new products to make younger consumers flock to Toyota.
The demographic profiles of the buyers of the youth-oriented Celica and Echo aren't in yet. But both are selling well. The new Celica sold more vehicles in its first month on sale than it did all last year.
Said Inaba: 'It's still premature, but I'm very excited about the initial reaction.'
BACK IN THE UNITED STATES
Like his predecessor, Yoshio Ishizaka, Inaba is a veteran of both North America and Europe. Before coming to America in June, Inaba was in charge of Toyota's European operations. Now back in the United States, Inaba is reunited with Press, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales.
'I'm very fortunate to have a partner like Jim. He's the most experienced guy in the company. He's been in all the jobs. I can learn a lot from him,' Inaba said.
And how does Inaba compare himself with Ishizaka? And the team of himself and Press compared with predecessors Ishizaka and Yale Gieszl? 'Yoshi and Yale have been very good at selling the vision of Toyota becoming the most respected and successful car company in America, but not necessarily the biggest,' Inaba said. 'Jim and I are more doers than thinkers. We're more down-to-earth and field-oriented. We're going to implement the programs that Yoshi and Yale set up.'
Inaba is fortunate to know the cast of characters he joins. For the first time in its history, Toyota's U.S. executive committee has more Americans than Japanese as officers.
'If I think like an American, it doesn't matter where I come from. I believe that an American company run by Americans is always better, but hopefully that includes myself,' Inaba said.
Press noted that Inaba's thinking is clearly that of a new type of Toyota executive, one with worldwide experience who is not constrained by home-market bias.
'Yoshi is one of Toyota's best and brightest executives. His education and work experience span the globe. He represents a new generation of global executives at Toyota,' Press said.
Inaba takes over an operation that is taking a growing share of Toyota's global profits. Traditionally, Toyota has counted on America for about 30 percent of worldwide net income, with Japan taking about 50 percent. But now, the mix is more 40-40. Europe and other markets account for the remainder.
Inaba sees that equation evening out, however. Southeast Asia is rebounding, and with Toyota aiming for a 5 percent share in Europe next year, Toyota won't be so dangerously reliant on American profits.
But behind this conservatism is an optimistic growth plan for America.
It's more than the strong American economy's rising tide lifting Toyota's boat. Toyota tends to be strongest when times are sour and a laggard when times are good. For the past three years, however, Toyota has outperformed a hot market.
The Toyota Camry is the best-selling car in America, and the new Tundra has taken the full-sized pickup market by storm. The Lexus RX 300 has the competition scrambling to imitate it. And with 11 new or redesigned products scheduled to arrive in the next 18 months, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. seems well positioned to continue its success.
Not that Toyota is pulling the plug on American growth. Far from it. Already well on track toward hitting the 1.5 million vehicle mark for Toyota and Lexus sales in 2000, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. is setting its sights on 2 million vehicles.
'It's a no-brainer,' said Inaba, borrowing his favorite Americanism. 'But we don't want to set an exact date.'
But Inaba quickly adds that 2010 should be a reachable time frame for the volume goal, especially if Toyota can work out its enviable situation of having a short supply of vehicles. Toyota wants 70 percent of its U.S. sales to be built in North America, so that means it will have to be building 1.4 million vehicles here within the decade.
Last year, Toyota built 647,942 vehicles in North America. Inaba's math suggests new or expanded factories must be in the cards.Although expansion of the Indiana and Canadian plants has been discussed, Toyota Motor Co. President Fujio Cho has a preference for the Kentucky plant. And Inaba doesn't rule out building a new plant in a different location.
Does that 25 percent volume jump mean Toyota and Lexus will see its dealer bodies grow? No, says Inaba.
'We may have to make adjustments based on the marketplace. Maybe we'll see more satellite service centers. Staffing and renovation adjustments may be necessary, too, especially on the service side. But we will not increase the dealer count significantly,' Inaba said, noting that Toyota has nearly 20 million vehicles on U.S. roads.
Toyota needs to be more aggressive with its Internet presence, but Inaba doubts it will lead to factory-direct sales.
'Cars can't be sent by UPS. There has to be customer contact somewhere, a human element,' Inaba said. 'We've worked so hard to develop our dealer network. Why should we think about using something different? We can't do it as well as a dealer can.'