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Published on October 12th, 2012 | by Daniel Sherman Fernandez

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Toyota Sets A New Target….Fun To Drive Cars

There is a new wind of change in Toyota Japan. Its President, Akio Toyoda no longer wants to hear comments on how Toyota cars are boring, soulless and built with no passion. He wants fun to drive cars in all Toyota showrooms globally and the fun started with the Toyota 86.

At the height of Toyota Motor Corp’s recall crisis in mid-2010, President Akio Toyoda quietly ordered a highly unorthodox personnel change. He plucked a veteran engineer named Mitsuhisa Kato from a Toyota motorsports affiliate. Kato had been sidelined from his prior job as a product development chief engineer at Toyota, so bringing him back was an unusual move. But the engineer had two skills the young CEO needed, a prescient understanding of the causes of the spiraling quality problems and a passion to build more exciting cars or as the insiders in Toyota call it, ‘Waku Doki’ (fun to drive). Kato was eased out at Toyota in 2006 to become president of Toyota Technocraft Co., Toyota’s tuning and motorsports affiliate. Even before the recalls, as Kato rose through the ranks as the chief engineer for the Corolla and then the Japan-market flagship Toyota Crown sedan, he was waving red flags about the company’s roller coaster growth which was later blamed for the quality lapses and recalls. At least there the self-confessed lead-foot could indulge his inner need for speed. Driving performance cars on twisty mountain roads is a beloved pastime of Kato, who confesses to earning his share of speeding tickets during his reckless youth. But Kato also has a mellow side, saying his ideal vacation is lounging on a tropical beach.

While at Technocraft, where Kato prepared Toyota cars for Germany’s Nurburgring race, he made a powerful ally: Akio Toyoda, the future CEO with a weak spot for high rpms. It wasn’t long before Kato’s warnings about too-rapid expansion proved right. When the recall headlines hit in early 2010, the recently installed president knew Kato had insights others lacked. By June of that year Kato was back at headquarters in Toyota City as a senior managing officer, overseeing all the company’s chief engineers under Uchiyamada.

Two years later, Toyota’s embarrassing recalls are in the rearview mirror, and Kato has joined his boss in the boardroom as the company’s new global R&D chief, overseeing all product development. The outspoken and charismatic Kato at 59years, took the helm in June 2010, filling big shoes vacated by Takeshi Uchiyamada, a man internally revered as the father of the Prius hybrid. He inherits a company at a fragile turning point. After three years of reacting to crises from the financial meltdown to the recalls to last year’s earthquake Toyota wants to grow again and rise to the challenges coming from the VW Group and Ford.

Kato’s top mission will be overhauling Toyota’s product development strategy, moving toward increased use of common designs and parts and global models. Kato will have to steer Toyota through a makeover that could be turbulent and painful but is essential to staying in the race against rivals Volkswagen, Hyundai, Ford and General Motors.


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