TOYOTA CITY — The Akio Toyoda most people see today is the charismatic, car-crazy captain of industry who is just as quick behind the wheel as he is with a disarming, self-effacing joke.
He is not just the frontman for the global car-making juggernaut founded by his grandfather. He is also a frontman for the global car-making juggernaut that is Japan's auto industry — and by extension, for all of Japan Inc., which leans on the auto sector as its most important engine.
This month, Toyoda marked his 10th anniversary at the helm of Toyota Motor Corp., seamlessly blending the tradition of family stewardship with a youthful restlessness to shake things up — even at 63. Toyoda makes change look easy, and his company is arguably in its best shape ever.
But it wasn't always that way. Toyoda's modern-day persona was forged in the fire of 10 tough years.
The first third of his tenure was spent fighting one crisis after another. The next third was spent regrouping. And only in the most recent period has he finally shifted his focus to the future.
When I met Toyoda, back in 2007, it was hard for me to imagine him someday leading a company that was then poised to surpass General Motors as the world's biggest automaker.
I had been invited to Fuji Speedway for the launch of the Lexus IS F sports sedan, a pet project of the "young prince," as the domestic media liked to dub Toyoda. I was new on the job and didn't know what to expect. People said Toyoda rarely talked to the press and was media shy.
Then a spritely 51, Toyoda peeled off some hot laps in the IS F and posed for photos wearing a black Lexus racing suit. The belt was embroidered with a Japanese flag and the words "A. Toyoda."
I had heard him described as affable. But to me, he seemed aloof, rigid, even ill at ease.