TOKYO -- As he sat high atop Toyota Motor Corp.'s new 46-floor office building in Nagoya at the end of 2007, an aging Shoichiro Toyoda was discussing the risks of the company's rapid growth. He was clearly worried.
The Japanese auto juggernaut already was showing cracks in its facade. In fact, the gleaming Midland Square skyscraper, dubbed the company's "third" headquarters, behind offices in Toyota City and Tokyo, symbolized its overreach.
"He said he was already aware that Toyota had expanded too quickly," recalls a longtime associate who was at that meeting with the honorary chairman. "He also did not want the Toyoda family fortune and legacy to decline."
It had been 12 years since the last Toyoda commanded the executive suite. But within a year, Shoichiro's son, Akio Toyoda, would be chosen as the company's youngest president.
Today, the 53-year-old "prince," as Akio is known in the Japanese media, is at the center of what insiders and experts describe as a battle for the soul of the world's biggest automaker.
On one side is the Toyoda family, led by Akio Toyoda, wielding the influence of the clan name in a drive to restore the values that transformed a parochial Japanese loom maker into a global paragon of engineering excellence, skilled manufacturing and product quality. Shoichiro just turned 85 but left the board of directors only last June -- and he still lingers in the background as an abiding presence.
On the other side are the forces of a new modern corporate culture -- forged during the last decade of voracious growth and shaped in large part by nonfamily members -- that prizes growth, global expansion and a Western-style dedication to pleasing investors.
"As you well know, I am the grandson of the founder, and all the Toyota vehicles bear my name," Akio Toyoda testified before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last week. "For me, when the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well."
Toyoda, grandson of founder Kiichiro Toyoda, said the company's traditional priorities -- first, safety; second, quality; third, volume -- have become "confused."