TOKYO -- Takahiro Hachigo wasn't the obvious choice to succeed Honda CEO Takanobu Ito. But a resume long on overseas assignments put him in a strong position to tackle the unfinished business left by Ito as Japan's No. 3 automaker pursues a mammoth overseas expansion.
Over more than three decades at Honda, Hachigo, 55, has served stints on three continents and has been working overseas since 2012, most recently in China. He also brings a special eye for the U.S., having been assistant chief engineer for the second-generation Odyssey minivan in 1999 and chief engineer for the second-generation CR-V crossover in 2001.
Both vehicles went on to become big sellers in the U.S., now Honda's big-gest market.
And his consensus-driven leadership style -- a contrast with Ito -- could help bring a sense of closure and cohesion to Honda after a tumultuous era marred by economic crises, natural disasters and quality glitches.
"In 2015, Honda is ready to make a huge leap forward," Ito said at a news conference early this week to announce Hachigo's elevation. "To do this, I believe, Honda needs to overcome challenges under a new, younger leader as a team."
Hachigo, whose appointment is effective in late June, began his career at Honda in 1982 in its automobile r&d unit as a chassis design engineer. He's a bit of a car wonk, which bodes well for Honda, whose critics say it has lost its knack for delivering exciting product. He enjoys building model cars and collecting toy cars. His idea of a dream vacation, he says, is a road trip with his wife to a hot spring resort -- in a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, no less.
"We need to come up with products and technologies that embody the challenging spirit that is typical of Honda," Hachigo pledged at his introduction at the company's headquarters.
His appointment was as much of a surprise to some insiders as it was to outside observers. Interviews with former U.S. colleagues suggest he didn't leave much of an impression during his tenure there in the mid-2000s.
The low-profile engineer leap-frogged an entire level of higher-ups to land in the executive suite. Notably passed over was Yoshiyuki Matsumoto, the managing officer who was considered by many as the next CEO.
Matsumoto, 57, also has international credentials. He heads Honda's rapidly expanding India operation and is executive vice president for booming Southeast Asia and Oceania. Ito anointed him chief of the company's global automotive division and put him in charge of quality.
Hachigo, meanwhile, stood out for his experience in the U.S. and other critical markets: Europe, China and, of course, Japan.
He played a key role in Ito's single biggest initiative: a still-unfinished realignment of Honda's global operations around six regional hubs, each wielding its own r&d and production power. Hachigo helped set up those regional centers as president of Honda's European r&d operation in 2012 and then as head of purchasing, production and development in China from 2013.
In China, he was instrumental in introducing cars designed specifically for that market, such as the Crider sedan, while also tailoring global nameplates to local tastes.
"Hachigo had quite an international career," said Chris Richter, an auto analyst with CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. "For a company that does only 20 percent of its global business in Japan, this sends a very positive message."
While Ito had little of that international experience -- he logged just two years at Honda's Ohio r&d center -- his tenure nonetheless marked a broad international shift for Honda. Under his leadership, Honda moved more production out of Japan and branched into emerging markets, with a goal of making those markets account for about half of the company's global volume by 2017, up from about 40 percent at the time of the announcement.
According to Honda, in 2008, the year before Ito became CEO, Honda exported 650,000 vehicles from Japan. Last year, it shipped just 31,301.
It's now up to Hachigo to carry that strategy further forward.
"Mr. Ito set about making major reforms," Hachigo said. "Now in 2015, we have reached the stage were we can deliver the results of these efforts in tangible forms to our customers."
Internally, Hachigo is known as an open-minded listener who builds consensus. In an interview with an internal corporate newsletter, Hachigo said the secret to his success was establishing trusting personal relationships through close communication.
"Ito's biggest problem was that he was too strong," said one former executive familiar with both men. "Being strong is OK, as long as you listen enough. From that point of view, Hachigo's management style will probably take that into account."
Ito's style was perhaps more suited for the crisis management tasks he faced, from the Great Recession to natural disasters to punishing currency trends.
More recently, Honda was hit by the global recall of millions of vehicles to replace faulty Takata airbags. And a string of recalls in Japan on the Fit, one of Honda's best-selling cars, forced Ito to delay six product launches and overhaul Honda's r&d strategy.
All the while, Ito was trying to diversify an ossified supplier network and broaden the overseas manufacturing footprint.
The company Hachigo inherits has worked past many of those challenges. But multiple challenges remain, from shrinking profits and unresolved Takata recalls to lackluster performance in the U.S., where the Honda and Acura brands last year missed out on one of the healthiest cycles. Hachigo's mission will be coalescing a battle-weary company around the new reality.
One burden Hachigo won't have to bear: meeting the lofty sales goal that Ito set in 2012 to sell 6 million vehicles globally in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2017. About a week before stepping down, Ito scratched the target, saying it put too much pressure on an over-strapped r&d and product development team.
Said CLSA's Richter: "It seems he was doing his successor a big favor, so his first order of business wasn't dismantling Ito's goals."