Magazine article

“The unprepossessing Mr. Toyota” – for an agency client – from stern magazine, October 2007, German into English

(Extracts – not continuous text)

When the Tokyo Motor Show begins this week, an unprepossessing man will be standing in the limelight: Under Katsuaki Watanabe Toyota has become the biggest automobile group in the world. This was only a matter of time, though, since the company has been doing everything right for years; yet the giant’s CEO is facing an enormous challenge.

He sneaks in these little moments: minor deviations from the protocol that had been meticulously honed for weeks. Innumerable e-mails have been written to this end, never-ending telephone calls made and dozens of meetings in Europe and Japan have been sat through, until everything was just right. And now something like this. For the Japanese, probably the most plan-obsessed people on this planet, this is chaos in its purest form.

And yet: he is the boss, who has been serving his company for more than four decades. And who could blame him – with this view, on a sunny summer’s morning, of Bensberg castle?

From the portal you have good visibility straight across to Cologne cathedral, around 16 kilometres away. This man – a beaming smile on his face – loves art and culture, he passionately enjoys singing in the choir, and the cathedral would be the concert hall of his dreams. And then Katsuaki Watanabe decides on the spot that the convoy for him and his entourage will make a little detour on the way to the Yvel car dealership in the south of Cologne. Look at this – the strictly timed schedule is in pieces for a quarter of an hour. The organizers are agitated. But Watanabe is in Germany for the first time, after all – who knows when another opportunity like this will present itself?

Under Watanabe’s governorship the Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) has, 70 years after its founding, overtaken General Motors as the biggest automobile constructor. In the first quarter of this year the Japanese (including the makes Toyota, Lexus, Daihatsu and the goods vehicle called Hino) sold more vehicles for the first time – in total around 9.1 million. This was foreseeable: in terms of sales and profit Toyota has long been in a class of its own and its growth is unceasing; the company is worth more than the most important competitors put together.

Katsuaki Watanabe could be as pleased as Punch over this. Yet something doesn’t feel right for him. “It is not our aim to be ahead of General Motors”, he says. Exuding a vigorous presence is unheard of for the Japanese, anyway. Watanabe keeps his upper body dead straight. When he sits down, as during the interview with stern magazine at the headquarters of Toyota City, he mainly keeps his hands still in his lap. In the enormous interview room he comes across as practically lost, even though he is the master in this house. His movements are economical and hardly sweeping. At the lectern he is so focused that he barely looks up. “Our aim is to construct good automobiles. We want our customers to be satisfied and buy their next car from us too.”

The period following the attacks on 11 September 2001 saw the biggest campaign so far to get Americans buying American-made products only. Without great success, since foreign manufacturers’ market shares continued to grow. Yet what if the mood turned around some day? Sure, Honda, Nissan and Subaru have had factories in the USA for a long time and all offer safer jobs than General Motors, Ford or Chrysler; but who wants to listen to objective arguments? One thing appears certain: Toyota, being the number one, would be hit the hardest.

Watanabe’s eyes gleam when he talks about the cars of the future. Vehicles that make the air cleaner with every kilometre are a vision in which he believes. No wonder: since Toyota introduced the first hybrid series a number of years ago, the Japanese group has become the clean man of automobile constructors. Watanabe’s wish: around the world on one full tank.

Watanabe’s obsession with detail is exemplary; he can become agitated at the sight of a dirty floor or parts lying around in one of the factories, since that is where inefficiency starts. During his visits he wants to know everything, he dives in deep. His guiding principle in the process is “genba” – on site, one has to be there. Recently, he reports, he was in the Kanto-Jidosha factory at the foot of Fiji. The painstaking inspection was lengthy: “I left in the morning at around ten o’clock and was back in the evening after nine. I therefore needed almost twelve hours for the visit.” Input, input, input. Watanabe also went into detail at IAA in Frankfurt in September. He had every slogan translated for him during his tour of the show, because he wants to understand the messages other companies send to their customers.