TOYOTA CITY — Akio Toyoda famously downplayed and even tried to hide his lineage while rising through the ranks at the automaker that was founded by his grandfather and later run by his father.
Even after taking the helm as president in 2009, the third-generation boss rarely ruminated publicly on his family ties. But in a rapidly changing industry in which the future is anything but clear, Toyoda is finally feeling the pressure of his ancestors and getting personal about his turn at the wheel.
For perhaps the first time in Toyota Motor Corp.'s history, the top man is breaking the gray-suited mold of his predecessors and putting a flashy, more personalized stamp on things. Toyoda's style unabashedly commingles his journey with that of Japan's biggest automaker.
Now that Toyoda's son has joined the family's namesake business, he is advising the next generation not to hide its heritage, either. To Toyoda, the family is a source of strength and pride.
"I told my son, 'You don't have to hide the family because it's part of yourself, part of who you are,' " Toyoda said during an interview in which he reflected on the burden of his ancestry and his first decade leading one of the world's most admired companies.
"If people ask, you can say it," he said. "You can take pride in it."
Toyoda is now confronting the elephant in the room: the Toyoda family legacy at Toyota Motor Corp. It comes as the 63-year-old leader races to reinvent the old-school metal-bender as a high-tech mobility provider and find the right successor to maintain Toyota's momentum — and profitability — in an industry that is being upended.
To some, the focus on the family is an anachronism in the age of shareholder activism, especially for a family with no controlling stake in the company and a leader with a borderline personality cult.
To others, the family is a flag firmly planted in tradition for the company to rally around.