Akio Illustrates Point with Elderly Couple and Donkey Story
Welcome back to our continuing coverage of the 116th Ordinary General Shareholders’ Meeting, held on June 11, 2020. This article will cover one of the topics discussed during the Q&A session.
In the Q&A session, one shareholder approached the microphone and brought up the Toyota financial results announcement back in May.
There was mention at your financial results briefing the other day of an operating income of 2.5 trillion yen for the fiscal period that just ended [in March 2020]. I think that’s quite remarkable. While many other companies are saying that they don’t know or are unable to provide a forecast for the current fiscal period [ending March 2021], Toyota set itself apart with a forecast for a profit of 500 billion yen. Is that figure accurate?
I was wondering why Toyota, a company watched by so many others, put out an unclear figure. Though I thought that was risky [to share a forecast], please share with us your intentions behind releasing the figure.
However, the question did not end with that request.
Also, the day following the financial results announcement, the media carried headlines in boldface that said: “Toyota Forecasts an 80 Percent Drop” [in operating profit]. My thoughts toward the media were: “What? That’s what you’ve chosen to write about?”
The reporting focused on the forecast of an 80 percent decrease in operating profit for the current year compared to the previous year despite the fact that Toyota had still announced a positive profit forecast of 500 billion yen. I’d like to hear what the president thinks about the media’s choice to focus on the 80 percent decrease of operating profit [vs the fact it was still a positive outlook]?
The shareholder asking the question shared thoughts on the media reports about the financial results, and was genuinely interested to learn what President Toyoda honestly thought about them.
As previously explained in a previous story on Toyota Times (“Akio Dares to Share Deep Reflection with Shareholders”), Toyota announced a forecast for the current fiscal year ending March 2021, citing a feeling of responsibility to issue guidance while understanding the difficulty to do so when considering the ongoing situation. Moreover, Toyota’s forecast showed that it anticipated an operating profit, even considering the potential impacts from COVID-19, thanks to ongoing efforts by the company to strengthen its corporate composition.
As mentioned before, shareholders are the owners of a company. Given that knowledge, a shareholder hearing the fact that Toyota’s forecast was to have a profit would most likely consider it as positive news. Instead, this shareholder and others saw negative headlines and perspectives in some media reports that chose to focus on the fact that Toyota’s profits may decrease by as much as 80 percent compared to the previous year, so naturally, there were questions about why the media chose that particular angle in the coverage, prompting this shareholder to ask: “What? That’s what you’ve chosen to write about?”
It was a good question -- what did Akio think about these reports? Did he share the same perspective as the shareholders?
He didn’t swing the question to anyone, instead, he started with the first question.
On the accuracy of the figure, the automotive industry depends on parts manufacturers for 75 percent of its parts, which means that it is an industry that relies on an extremely large number of companies.
If Toyota fails to present a plan, many companies, starting with the numerous suppliers who are doing work for us, would be at a great loss, thinking about what they should do.
In that sense, our true intent was to establish a plan that would serve as a base or guideline. The figure we have published is not necessarily meant to be the final figure for the current fiscal period, it is meant to be more of a baseline. Internally, we are treating it as one point of view, but one that we are relying on as a guideline that we, at a bare minimum, must commit to achieving.
What I would like you to understand the most is that Toyota has been able to provide guidance for positive operating profit, despite our guidance of a 20 percent decrease in new vehicle sales. This is in stark contrast to how we fared when we experienced a 15 percent drop in the number of new vehicles sold at the time of the global financial crisis, which caused an operating deficit of 460 billion yen. This year’s vehicle sales forecast is worse than the number sold at the time of the global financial crisis. However, since that time, we have been able to lower our break-even point thanks to everyone’s diligent efforts and the support we have received from everyone in the mid-to-long term. I would like to take this opportunity to express my most sincere appreciation.
So, in response to the first question about how accurate the number issued was, Akio stated that the forecast issued by Toyota was “a guideline that we, at a bare minimum, must commit to achieving.”
Then, he continued to address the next part of the question, which was about how he felt toward the media reports.
Now, as for the reports by the media, initially, before the media published anything on the day of our financial results announcement, the feedback I received from various people included such comments as: “That was quite something for Toyota to have announced a forecast,” and “I was really impressed.”
However, the next day, following the reports in the media, the feedback changed to: “I’m worried about Toyota” and “Is everything really alright?” I honestly felt sad when thinking about the power the stories in the media had over the course of just one night.
His answer confirmed that even he, Akio, had experienced the same feeling as this shareholder as he read the headlines and articles. So he decided to express his thoughts a little differently – in the form of an analogy. Only this analogy has a donkey and an elderly couple.
“Though it might make for a longer answer, please allow me to share a scenario about an elderly couple and a donkey on a journey.”
If the husband and wife were walking together with the donkey, someone might ask them: “Why don’t you ride on the donkey?”
If someone saw that the husband was riding on the donkey while the wife was walking, the person might say: “What a selfish husband!”
If the wife was riding on the donkey while the husband was walking, someone might say: “The woman is the dominant one in that relationship.”
Finally, if both the husband and the wife were both riding on the donkey, the same person might say: “Oh, that poor old donkey.”
Sharing such an usual analogy from what felt like nowhere, the shareholder and others in the audience were carefully listening and trying to understand what he meant. Akio continued with the story and explained what he meant by sharing this analogy.
In other words, under the banner of freedom of speech, you can be criticized no matter what you do.
As I see the stories coming out these days, I can’t help but feel that the media tend to have a self-righteous attitude, acting as though they are only ones who can decide what is considered news.
We now live in an age in which anybody can share information. It is an age where anyone or everyone is a journalist.
Information can hurt people or provide hope. I think what is important is what one wants to achieve by relaying such information. Taking it a step further, I think it leads to a decision of what kind of world one wants to create.
The reason we offered our forecast at our financial results briefing was because we wanted to offer any type of hope and optimism to everyone. It was my hope that people will come to think of Toyota as a company that “mass produces” happiness.
Our shareholders are, we can say, the owners of our company. But are we really delivering happiness to all of Toyota’s stakeholders? We need to relentlessly and genially ascertain if we are actually a company mass producing happiness or not, and to do so, I humbly request your support.
Through his response to the second question, Akio was able to help this shareholder and all those in attendance better understand the reasoning of why Toyota issued the forecast. Also, he helped clarify the intention of sharing such a forecast was to provide a feeling of hope during these uncertain times. Though the media and others may interpret or share a different perspective, this is another reason why this is being shared on Toyota Times, where this particular perspective can be emphasized and shared unfiltered.
Further to his desire to share positivity, Akio also emphasized the following toward the end of the shareholder meeting:
I don't like to see pessimism in the world. To help spread optimism instead, we, together with all Toyota team members across the world, will do all we can to become a source of hope for all people, working to make the world a brighter place.
Even during the current pandemic, Akio has been proactively thinking about how to use “his” and “our” strength to contribute to making the world a brighter place.