NAGOYA, Japan --Straight talk and probing questions got Mark Hogan noticed by future Toyota President Akio Toyoda almost three decades ago.
The two men served on the board of the now-defunct New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. factory operated jointly by General Motors and Toyota in Fremont, Calif.
"We used to have rather pointed discussions about the way that NUMMI ran, with perhaps our own company's perspective in mind," Hogan said last week at his first public appearance since joining Toyota Motor Corp.'s board in June. "Those very candid discussions led to a very strong belief in each other's opinions about the auto industry."
The GM-executive-turned-Toyota-board-member has come full circle in his relationship with the Japanese automaker and onetime rival.
In 1986, GM tapped him as a "NUMMI commando" to ferret out the secrets of the Toyota Way at the plant. Now Toyota has brought him on as one of the company's first outside board members.
Hogan's brief is to inject a dose of American business mind-set into one of the most Japanese of Japanese companies. The white-haired Hogan, who handled a wide variety of assignments at GM, has been asked to do what he did back at NUMMI: Keep those frank opinions coming.
"Akio wanted a clear, unfiltered perspective," said Hogan, 62, who spent three decades at GM before becoming president of parts supplier Magna International Inc. "I see my role as listening to global voices outside of Japan and then sharing insights that will help Toyota respond more quickly to changes in society."
Also on Hogan's plate: jump-starting Toyota's anemic business in booming Latin America. Hogan, who once headed Brazil operations for GM, conceded he was disappointed that the world's largest carmaker has "underperformed" in Brazil and Argentina.
Hogan will work as a mentor to Steve St. Angelo, a fellow American who started April 1 as Toyota's first non-Japanese regional CEO for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Hogan is one of three external directors named in March. The others are Japanese. Having outside board members is rare for a Japanese company. Having a foreign one is rarer still.
Critics have long accused the world's largest automaker of ossified decision-making and navel-gazing groupthink. Insiders say Toyota's reluctance to delegate authority to regional operations and listen to their input helped trigger the massive sudden acceleration recall crisis of 2009-10.
"The lesson learned for Toyota in the most recent example was: Was there enough speed to respond to the crisis?" Hogan said.
"The recent organizational changes and change in the philosophy in the way the company makes decisions on a global basis is certainly a strong response to that experience."
Hogan praised Toyoda for introducing changes that aim to speed the company's reaction time and decentralize authority.
"You could describe one of the few weaknesses of Toyota in the past: It's been rather a methodical, slow decision-making process that eventually ended up here in Japan on all decisions, no matter how global they were," Hogan said. "What Toyota is trying to achieve is much more local autonomy."
Still unclear: How much impact Hogan will have on the board.
Japanese boards are traditionally rubber-stamp bodies that tend to quickly approve decisions made by managers long in advance.
Hogan, who is based in suburban Detroit, said he will journey to Japan about once a month. But after attending the first board meeting in June, he was expected to attend the second only by videoconference, a person familiar with the matter said.
Hogan, who relies on an interpreter to navigate Japanese discussion and paperwork, said the onus was on him to stay plugged in and well-prepared for each meeting.
At the very least, he said, his presence will generate "a broader and richer discussion at the board meetings."