"Would you be president for me?" A recap of the live interview with Toyota's new "team leader," including that big trackside proposal.
On January 26, Toyota announced a change at the top. This article shines a spotlight on incoming president Koji Sato, who will lead the company into the future.
After joining Toyota in 1992, Sato built his career as an engineer, serving as chief engineer for the LEXUS LC flagship coupe launched in 2017.
From 2020, he became president of Lexus International Co. in January and GAZOO Racing Company in September before taking up the Chief Branding Officer (CBO) baton from President Akio Toyoda the following year.
Since 2021, Sato has led the challenge to race hydrogen-powered cars, working on the front lines to communicate Toyota’s efforts in creating like-minded partners and advancing technology toward a carbon-neutral society.
Why did Akio pick Sato as his successor? And what advice did he give the incoming president? Here are the highlights from their comments and banter during the live broadcast with Toyota’s new team leader.
A love of making cars
Scene I: A video introducing Koji Sato shows him enjoying a drive with Akio.
Isn’t that a nice smile?
It’s true, your face lights up when you talk about cars.
This might be the first time you’ve complimented me. (Laughs)
I’m not complimenting you. (Laughs)
You love cars, don’t you?
Yes, but my love of cars is more about making them, whereas Akio loves to drive. He can’t hide his love of cars; it just spills out of him.
In my case, I want people who love cars to drive good cars. I want to bring smiles to their faces. That’s what gives me joy as a car-lover.
So even car lovers come in different kinds.
We’re on a slightly different mission. I’m feeling my limits as a carmaker.
He’s also a carmaker, but his mission is to transform us into a mobility company and to do so with a young team.
A trackside proposal
Scene II: Host Yuta Tomikawa asks when and how the presidency was offered to Sato.
At the end of last year, we were at an endurance race in Buriram, Thailand, and he asked if I had a second...
Amid all the excitement at the circuit, he said, “Can you do me a favor?” I replied, “Of course.” “Would you be president for me?” I didn’t know how to react.
At first, I didn’t understand what was going on. Looking back on it now, I realize it was an act of kindness or consideration on his part so I wouldn’t get too serious.
I thought it was a joke. It was the kind of offer that made me wonder what would come next. (Laughs)
I do think that these kinds of private notices are necessary. I guess I have my own way of doing it.
We spend more time in cars or talking with genba engineers than making decisions in the president’s office.
So, rather than calling him to meet and talk somewhere, I thought it would be better to put it to him like a favor, the way I usually do.
But I had trouble finding the right time... I didn’t want to stretch it into the new year, so I took that moment in Thailand.
And being at a racetrack, I’m sure you were surrounded by the roar of engines.
There were people around, but they couldn’t hear us. On the other hand, if the two of us were alone in a closed room, people would wonder what was going on. So, I asked him while we were going about business as usual.
At first, he just casually approached me as we watched the cars rushing by on the track. After that, we talked at length about our thoughts on cars, how Akio has led Toyota, and his expectations, all while watching the racing cars. It was a time for me to collect my thoughts.
That seems a very fitting way to pass the baton between the two of you.