LOS ANGELES -- While much of the industry is struggling with losses and declining sales, Toyota is a juggernaut.
But Jim Lentz, the new executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., still has plenty to worry about.
Toyota's rapid growth is straining dealers' ability to provide customer service. Despite sizzling hybrid sales, Toyota has its share of gas guzzlers thirsty for $3-per-gallon fuel. And the company is betting that the upcoming Tundra full-sized pickup can more than double its volume by stealing sales from Big 3 loyalists.
To tackle these challenges, Lentz will use his experience launching Scion and working with dealers during a long climb up Toyota's corporate ladder.
"We understand our current dealers and boomer customers. But as we look at a new generation of buyers, dealers and employees, a lot of things are going to change," Lentz says.
That may play havoc with Toyota's consensus-driven culture, which Lentz readily admits sacrifices speed for stability.
Lentz's ascent surprised many Toyota watchers. They expected an older, more public face to take the helm in the wake of Jim Press becoming the top American executive of Toyota's North American holding company in New York. Press guided Toyota's U.S. sales from 1.48 million in 1999 to 2.26 million last year -- big shoes for Lentz to fill.
But to Toyota insiders, Lentz's climb to the top spot was seen from a mile away.
Lentz, 50, has 28 years of Toyota experience, rotating through nearly every Toyota department. He is at the heart of a youth movement, with Toyota promoting 40-somethings such as Bob Carter, Jim Farley, Deborah Meyer and Mark Templin to crucial vice presidential posts.
"Toyota is prepping the next level of managers for the next five or six years, when we have a lot of senior executives retiring," Lentz says.
Longtime dealer Jack Thompson, who has Toyota stores in Doylestown and Langhorne, Pa., has known Lentz since he was "one step up from a rep."
"Press will be very hard to replace, but Jim Lentz is a very intelligent guy, easy to get along with," Thompson says. "Whereas Press is a dynamic speaker, Lentz is low-key. He listens."
Both Press and Lentz were key in launching new divisions earlier in their careers.
Press' mid-1990s leadership of Lexus broke the brand out of a sophomore slump. He encouraged Toyota's boomer owners to move up to a luxury brand.
Lentz's launch of Scion was perhaps more difficult. It was a blank sheet of paper, with quirky cars and marketing. He had to attract Gen Y customers who saw Toyota as their generation's Oldsmobile.
"Most of my career had been in sales, and Scion was more strategic -- figuring out a business model, product strategy and marketing strategy, I was outside my typical realm," Lentz says.
"When I first saw the xB, I thought we were crazy. That was when I realized I needed to spend more time listening to the customer and not so much on what I might think in my gut."
Lessons from Scion
Lentz says the lessons he learned from Scion will be essential in guiding Toyota through the next decade.
"What I bring is knowledge of the changing trends out in the marketplace, whether it involves the fragmentation of media or how we communicate with the next generation of buyers," Lentz says.
"I am not convinced that what has made us successful in the past will make us successful in the future," he says.
"That's what keeps me up at night."
You may e-mail Mark Rechtin at [email protected]