If he succeeds in making Toyota profitable in Europe, Shuhei Toyoda could make quite a name for himself.
Not that he needs to. His name is already on the building - sort of.
Shuhei Toyoda, 55, is a member of Toyota Motor Corp.'s founding family. He is the son of former chairman Eiji Toyoda and great-nephew of Kiichiro Toyoda, who founded Japan's No. 1 carmaker.
He is also the highest-ranking Toyota executive among members of his generation of Toyodas. Some colleagues in Europe think he could run the entire company someday. But the family doesn't talk about such things.
And Toyodas can't rely on ownership muscle to help them rise in Toyota because the family controls very little of the company's equity.
'People should not compare my role in the company with those of some members of the Ford and Peugeot families in their respective companies,' said Toyoda during a rare interview. 'The Toyoda family's financial interest in Toyota Motor Corp. is minimal compared with those of the Fords and Peugeots.'
But he says that active involvement of a Toyoda family member has its benefits.
'In Japan, a lot of Toyota employees liked to cooperate with me because they remembered how my uncle and my father were respected because of what they did,' Toyoda said. 'I see that as an advantage.'
Shuhei has built his own reputation in the company. He is considered the spiritual father of the Yaris, the most successful car Toyota has ever sold in Europe.
'He adores cars and contributed a lot to the Yaris' design,' said a Toyota executive in Brussels.
Toyoda doesn't make a big deal of his family connections. He wears the familiar company work uniform while at his desk in Brussels. He speaks excellent English, but measures his words carefully and talks slowly.
He appears to be liked by his co-workers.
'Shuhei is simple, modest, very accessible,' said a colleague. 'He is very warm, he smiles and laughs, but he has a natural reserve.'
He lives in Brussels with his wife and two children, and his home, like him, is not show-offy, said a fellow executive.
Shuhei has strong ties to Europe. During the 1970s, he studied tribology, the science of friction and lubrication, at Leeds University in England. During the mid-1990s he supervised purchasing for four-and-a-half years at Toyota Manufacturing UK.
'I spent some very enjoyable years in the UK,' he said.
He returned to Japan in 1996 as chief engineer on the small-car project that became the Yaris. He also helped plan the innovative Yaris factory in Valenciennes, France.
Toyoda came back to Europe last July as head of manufacturing. In April, he was named president of a new holding company, Toyota Motor Europe. The new unit was formed to improve communications between the two operating divisions - Toyota Motor Europe Marketing & Engineering and Toyota Motor Europe Manufacturing. The idea is to speed decision-making in Europe.
'We want to achieve this through better communications,' said Toyoda. 'We created a similar structure in the USA four years ago.'
His specialty is manufacturing. He ran two factories in Japan and his new job includes the assembly plants in Burnaston, England, and Valenciennes; a transmission plant in Poland; and the future joint-venture plant with PSA/Peugeot-Citroen in the Czech Republic.
Aggressive sales efforts
But he also now oversees Toyota's aggressive sales efforts in Europe. Toyota sold 547,000 cars in Europe last year, a small increase over the previous year. But it aims to reach 800,000 units annually by 2005, a volume comparable in units to BMW or Mercedes-Benz.
Toyoda's main focus these days is turning a profit at Toyota Motor Europe. The company was in the red for the third straight year in the 12 months ending March 31, posting an operating loss of 12.4 billion yen (104 million).
'We want to break even in the 2003 fiscal year [year ending March 31, 2004],' he said. 'We are currently being helped by a more favorable exchange rate to the euro. But we have to cut costs in all areas.
'Toyota's lean production system is a key to cutting costs,' he said. 'The system is always open to further improvement. There is no limit.
'But we must look for other ways to cut costs,' he added. 'We must now start on the whole customer order and delivery process.'
Toyoda also wants to make Toyota more European. More than anything that means offering diesel versions of some of its upscale Lexus models. But that probably won't happen before 2005. The first model is likely to be the IS200. The diesels will use Toyota's common-rail technology.
Toyota's new Formula One entry will also help.
'But we seek more from Formula One involvement than just improving our image,' Toyoda said. 'We will also communicate the spirit of challenge in this sport. And we hope that our T-sport model line will benefit from the Formula One aura.'
Though Toyota is rapidly growing its production in Europe, Toyoda does not necessarily want more Japanese suppliers to follow.
'As long as they are capable and competitive we will work with European suppliers,' he said. 'But what we are worried about is their increasingly very low price quotations. We wonder whether they actually have methods to produce at low prices, or if they just want to be our supplier. We have to assess this.'
He respects European technology.
'I never say Japanese engineering is superior,' Toyoda said. 'In some ways Japanese are advanced. In other ways Europe may lead. Maybe in the future, European leadership in Toyota's global engineering can increase.'
Toyoda also oversees ED2, Toyota's new design studio in Sofia Antipolis, near Nice in southern France. The studio is part of the company's global network of styling centers.
'The problem is that the Japanese do not always appreciate European design,' he said. 'That is a challenge for the ED2 studio when it competes with our studios in California, Tokyo and Toyota City.'
Building up the Lexus brand is another focus of Toyoda's. Lexus sales last year rose 25 percent in Europe to 21,400. But that is still far below sales for Toyota's luxury brand in the USA.
'Our main target with Lexus was originally the USA,' Toyoda said. 'But we will enhance the European-ness of Lexus and may take some big steps in an evolutionary process.'