Automotive analyst Shinya Yamamoto goes one-on-one with this year's trio of newly appointed presidents. In this first installment, President Koji Sato delves into his life as a "Toyota man."
Overcoming the “can’t” mentality
In the following years, Sato became Executive General Manager. Ordinarily, an executive position might mean stepping back from the front lines of carmaking, but that was not the case for Sato.
I felt like I needed to think about the management side of things as well, but when I was first offered the job, President Akio simply told me, “Just keep on making cars.”
That has been my cornerstone to this day.
After more than a decade of honest carmaking under Akio Toyoda, I came to understand what it means to run a “product-centered” business. What I must do is uphold that and share it with others.
An engineer’s job is actually very simple. At its root is the desire to make possible something that hasn’t been done before. But like the LC’s initial planning stage, there are times when I myself thought that certain things just can’t be done.
After making cars with President Akio, however, I gradually changed. I learned that it’s okay to tackle things you can’t do—that’s what carmaking is all about.
I believe that everyone at Toyota feels the same. Even so, some people are inclined towards a “can’t” mentality, perhaps because of environmental factors or past experiences, and I see my role as helping them overcome that mindset.
The LC also grew out of the people around me coming up with and getting excited about various ideas. That’s why teamwork is crucial in carmaking. In this regard, my feelings haven’t changed since becoming president.
Leading with a love of cars
So, what is it like now that Sato is president? With reporters keen to compare him to President Toyoda, does he feel any pressure?
With Chairman Akio right beside me and what I have learned over more than a decade, rather than setting wild ambitions to outdo him, I am more interested in working together to create a brighter future for cars.
Of course, I will do what I have to do as a manager. I’m trying my best to learn on the job.
However, since cars are still at the heart of Toyota’s operations, the company won’t function correctly unless it is led by the person with the strongest love and hope for cars.
I feel that this is what is expected of me, and so I will keep sharing my passion for cars. That is all I can do.
Looking at Sato, I cannot help but feel that even as he has continued climbing to new heights—from CE to executive general manager, operating officer, and president—he has always remained the same Koji Sato.
I can’t speak for inside the company, but outside it, he speaks with people on their level to an almost excessive degree. This goes some ways toward explaining why Sato has many fans among engineers at rival carmakers.
Though I’ve never been conscious of it, even since becoming president, I want to remain an engineer.
In engineering, there is no hierarchy based on titles. Strength rests with those who put in the work on the ground, and so we must respect those who know the genba and understand the technology.
In the end, the only thing that has changed is my title. I couldn’t change myself even if I wanted to. In other words, Koji Sato will always remain the same person.
At the root of everything is a very simple sentiment: I love cars. And anyone who loves cars can’t be a bad person (laughs).
Koji Sato's Profile
As a full-blown Honda fan during his college days, Sato’s first car was a Honda Civic (EF model). After joining Toyota, he went through a Hilux and a used Crown before trying out some German cars to “check out the competition,” as Toyota engineers like to do. Later, when his stint at the Chassis Engineering Division sparked an interest in super strut suspension, Sato bought a Celica. Currently, he drives the Lexus LC he oversaw as CE and owns a Supra (A80) handed down by his father-in-law to “perhaps provide some inspiration” in developing the LC coupe, along with an AE86 (Corolla Levin, pictured above) purchased with an engineer’s curiosity to see “how our predecessors built cars 40 years ago.” Although the AE86 was in fairly good shape, Sato’s tinkering impulse got the better of him, and it was soon taken apart... While part of him can’t wait to get back behind the wheel, “Looking at those individual parts, I sometimes feel I’d rather not finish it!” Recently, he lived for late-night sessions, searching out spare parts on online auctions.
Shinya Yamamoto's Profile
Automotive analyst. Worked for a carmaker and tuning specialist before moving into automotive journalism. Since becoming a freelancer in 2013, he has sought to share the stories of both users and creators in an accessible and compelling way.