Hiroshi Okuda remains a man on a mission.
In 1995, he became the first Toyota president in 28 years not to come from the founding Toyoda family.
At the time, Toyota was drifting. The company was forced to postpone key decisions as its previous president, Tatsuro Toyoda, was in the hospital recovering from a stroke. The newly launched Corolla was a dud with Japanese consumers. And Toyota's market share had dipped below 40 percent, a level that Toyota insiders considered their birthright.
Okuda was named president because the no-nonsense manager was expected to shake things up. It was an assignment he relished. Even now, as chairman, he continues to push the conservative automaker faster and farther than it otherwise might go. He has pushed hardest in Toyota's core car business. He built new plants in India, the United States, Brazil, China and France.
He decreed that the company should allot funds equal to 1 percent of sales, or about $800 million, on research into new powerplants. Moreover, he directed all of the additional funds into development of fuel cells and other alternative powerplants. Toyota responded by producing the world's first commercial hybrid car, the Prius, and gave Toyota a serious (if disputed) claim to being the world's greenest carmaker.
Stung by rival Honda Motor Co.'s hugely successful line of compact minivans and sport-utilities, Okuda directed Toyota to develop its own models. He also approved a European-designed subcompact to replace the dull Starlet and Tercel. The result was a string of body styles known variously as the Vitz, FunCargo and Platz in Japan, the Yaris in Europe and the Echo in the United States. Sales of the new models soared. Okuda's reward: a 43 percent share of the Japanese market last year, its highest.
The outspoken Okuda, a black-belt judo enthusiast and aggressive mah-jongg player, has sought to reinvent Toyota in other ways as well. He demanded that executives be promoted on the basis of merit, not seniority. Sometimes he promoted younger managers by two positions at a time. To encourage Toyota executives to set tougher financial performance standards, he listed the carmaker on the London and New York stock exchanges. That forced the company to disclose more financial data to investors.
He also pressed Toyota to start thinking of itself as more than a maker of cars. Okuda is fond of saying that few industries remain successful for more than 60 years. The implication: Toyota had better learn a new set of skills if it does not want to go the way of textiles, steamboats and railroads.
Under Okuda's prodding, Toyota is investing heavily in telematics, financial services and even biotechnology. Whether Toyota will succeed in any of those fields remains to be seen. But these ventures are a testament to Okuda's insistence that Toyota turn off the cruise control and reinvent itself.