Toward the end of the 90-minute-long 116th Ordinary General Shareholder Meeting, there was a point at which Akio was so moved to tears that he couldn’t speak. It was after the Q&A session, before moving on to the voting of bills, where Akio, the chair, took the opportunity once again to express his thoughts.
It was in part of reflection of Toyota’s financial results announcement in May, which was held in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when the outlook was most uncertain. Akio described to the shareholders how during that time he “shed tears on some of those days”.
This is what he shared with the shareholders:
To begin with, I am delighted that we have been able to hold our financial results announcement and shareholder meeting as planned. This is, after all, a time when it is difficult to carry out what we have long considered normal business activities in a normal manner.
I would also like to express my gratitude to all our partners. Without their hard work, none of this would have been possible. Thank you.
Next, please allow me to tell you a story, one that may result in me being called “the crybaby president.”
At a recent Board of Directors’ Meeting where our financial results were approved, I was unexpectedly moved to tears as I expressed my gratitude to those present and said “thank you.”
At the general shareholder meeting, there was a short silence as they waited for him to continue. After a short pause, Akio continued, reflecting on his now 11-year term.
In March 2011, I outlined the “Toyota Global Vision”, stating: “Our goal is to realize a corporate composition capable of achieving operating income of one trillion yen per year with global sales of 7.5 million vehicles and at the exchange rate of 85 yen to the dollar.”
Since then, I have often been asked: “Are you succeeding in strengthening your corporate composition?” To which, I have replied: “I will only be able to answer that question when we face another crisis similar in scale to that of the global financial crisis.”
Now, with the spread of COVID-19, the world is facing a crisis of even greater proportions.
Even though I had not ordered it, Toyota’s worksites began producing face shields; choosing to prioritize human life and safety, our worksites swiftly evaluated the situation, swiftly made their decisions, and swiftly executed the appropriate actions.
Although only a forecast, at the financial results announcement I communicated the message that “Toyota will not show a loss.” At the same time, I believe we succeeded in demonstrating a standard that can be used as a reference point by society.
Now, in response to the question—“Are you succeeding in strengthening your corporate composition?”—I am able to confidently say:
“I firmly believe Toyota has grown stronger. It is my wish to use this strength to help those outside the company.”
Over my 11 years as president...
Here, he took another short pause to recompose himself. Despite the pause, as Akio began to speak again, it was clear that he was choking up as he fought back his tears.
At times I have spoken some extremely harsh words to Toyota employees.
Nevertheless, there were employees at various worksites who believed in my words, and who continued to make steady efforts.
The numbers disclosed on this fiscal year’s financial statement reflect the results of the hard work from Toyota’s 370,000 employees and their families around the globe.
When I came to this realization, I was unable to hold back my tears, even though I was at a meeting as formal as the Board of Directors’ Meeting.
As he spoke about Toyota employees, Akio found himself choking on his tears. Looking back, it is true that Akio has, at times, said “very harsh things” to the employees. For example, in an annual company-labor meeting in Japan last year, he said:
“I have not felt such a gap between labor and management”
“Even when we were facing losses or tough times, I have always worked through these challenges with my employees. I’m starting to think it was all for nothing”
These words were not aimed simply at those present, but actually at all within the company, including the management – those whom he felt were supposed to be on his side.
In the same meeting, Akio asked all present to:
“Greet everyone properly in the morning”
“Say thank you after someone has done something for you”
“Be the first one to be there to any meeting you schedule”
“Go to meet the person, instead of calling them over”
Akio even went so far as to raise issues that might likely have been found to be taught in a moral education class, and stated his desire to “create a workplace environment where normal things can be carried out in a normal manner.”
He has also expressed in his own words thoughts and values that he feels should not be forgotten, such as “the main principles of founder Sakichi Toyoda” and the “Joint Declaration of Labor and Management.”
This too is what Akio calls “a fight to bring back what makes us Toyota”, and “the battle within big corporation Toyota”, something Akio has been struggling with ever since he became president.
As some of the Toyota Times editors can affirm, there have indeed been times when they were told harsh things and times when they have been first-hand witnesses of others being told very harsh things. For this reason, they revealed that they felt the joy, to the point of tears, when Akio said “this financial result was created by our employees and their families” while shedding tears of his own. Akio may not have been alone in his tears on that occasion.
<Akio Toyoda remarks continued at the shareholder meeting>
“Let us not prioritize units sold or profits made—instead, let us make ever-better cars”
“Let us not aim to be the number one company in the world, but a best-in-town company”
“Let us at all costs safeguard monozukuri, including Japan’s monozukuri”
Looking back, my management decisions frequently went against the trends of the times, and even against Toyota’s conservative mainstream.
Inside the company, being president is a lonely task.
Perhaps this has been even more true for me, since I feel I was not welcomed into the role of president. I frequently felt “alone,” in various senses of the word.
Yet I, in defiance of the mainstream, was somehow able to make progress—I could not have done this without the support of you, Toyota’s shareholders.
Taking a medium and long-term perspective, our shareholders have continued to support Toyota and continued to support me personally. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all once again.
At this comment, a loud round of applause erupted.
It is my opinion that the shareholder meeting is a valuable, once-a-year opportunity for us to look in the mirror and re-evaluate ourselves.
I wonder how the Toyota of today appears to you all.
I hope that the Toyota you see now is different to what you have seen before—and that you see a company that you can depend upon, if only a little more than you thought previously.
Finally, I would like to say to you all:
Do not worry. Toyota will be OK.
The Toyota of today is different from when the global financial crisis struck.
Even in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Toyota is strong enough to be able to think about the well-being of the automotive industry, the well-being of the Japanese economy, the well-being of the Earth itself, and the well-being of future generations of children.
Toyota has finally managed to begin its journey to become a company that the people of the world can depend upon.
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.
I very much hope for your continued support.
Akio has chaired the shareholder meetings since 2010.
In his first year as chair, Toyota recorded a loss due to the global financial crisis. At the start of the same year, Toyota faced its recall crisis and Akio subsequently attended the U.S. congressional hearing.
At that time, the majority of shareholders thought of Akio as a spoiled member of the founding family who became the president without any track record of achievements and had benefited from nepotism. For this reason, they often assailed him with a series of difficult questions.
Akio’s first shareholder meeting was held on June 24, 2010, the day after Master Test Driver Hiromu Naruse passed away in an unexpected accident; Naruse was a master Toyota test driver and had been Akio’s driving instructor who taught Akio over and over again the meaning of how “it is the road that makes cars.”
Akio received the news of Naruse’s passing away at the break of dawn on the day of June 24. He chaired his first shareholder meeting that same day, even whilst being under the mental stress from the news that morning.
Then, the following year, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011. The plants stopped its operations, and production came to a halt. It was not until the middle of April that production resumed. When the shareholder meeting was held in June, operations had still not returned to normal. As such, Akio’s second meeting as chair also took place in difficult circumstances.
When Akio chaired his third meeting in 2012, Toyota was still reeling from the effects of the earthquake and recorded a loss as Toyota Motor Corporation (Japan) on a non-consolidated basis.
In 2013, his fourth meeting as chair, Akio was finally able to greet the company’s shareholders having made a profit—non-consolidated operating income for FY2013 was 242.1 billion yen.
At that time, it was customary for the president to host a meeting with Toyota dealers on the day after the shareholder meeting. Below is the record of what Akio said that day in 2013:
<Akio’s remarks at the meeting with dealers in Japan in 2013>
The shareholder meeting is a once-a-year opportunity to communicate directly with our shareholders. However, I remember opening my heart to you all here and confessing that, in reality, “It is my least favorite day of the year.”
This year, for the first time since I was appointed president, I was able to face our shareholders having made a profit.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about the sort of feedback I would receive from our shareholders; however, I believe this was the first time I was able to face the shareholder meeting with a simple, stress-free mindset.
I hope, one day, to make the shareholder meeting an occasion I look forward to—I believe I succeeded in taking a step toward that today.
His words at that time revealed just how difficult it was for him to stand in front of Toyota shareholders when the company had not succeeded in turning a profit—in other words, when he had been unable to benefit society.
However, having only a single year’s profit meant the company was still unable to pay its taxes; fortunately, the following year, 2014, Toyota achieved a second successive profitable year, and at long last was able to return to being a company that could pay taxes.
Once again, Akio revealed the feelings he had as he attended the shareholder’s meeting at the following day’s meeting with Toyota dealers:
<Akio’s remarks at the meeting with dealers in Japan in 2014>
This was my fifth shareholder meeting as chair.
Yet this was my first time chairing the meeting as president of a company that is able to pay its taxes.
I have continued to receive support from all of you: from our customers, from our dealers, and from our suppliers…. I am truly grateful. Thank you.
If we can pay taxes, then we can pay dividends to our shareholders.
Initially, I believed this meeting would be an occasion when I could communicate my thoughts directly to our shareholders—in other words, that it would be the ideal shareholder meeting.
However, as the meeting approached, I actually found it difficult to remain calm.
Previously, the reasons for my anxiety were clear.
I could also clearly hear the voices of our supporters saying “Fight, Toyota!” and “We will support you when things are difficult!”—and this gave me courage.
This year, however, I had no idea what sort of questions I would face. And, both the company and I had begun to feel a considerable sense of security…
For these reasons, this year my anxieties were different to what I had experienced previously, and it was in such circumstances that I prepared for the shareholder meeting.
At the actual meeting, the feedback from the shareholders was not so harsh. I was able to tell them all the things I wanted to communicate. In that sense, the shareholder meeting was perhaps closer to my ideal meeting than before.
Toyota had finally become a company that could be of use to society. It was also able to repay its shareholders in the form of dividends. For the first time, Akio sensed that he had been able to take a step closer to the sort of shareholder meeting he had envisioned.
But his words also revealed how, despite the more positive circumstances, he was still overcome with doubts when it came to chairing the shareholder meeting.
Now, six years later in 2020, during this new plight with the COVID-19 crisis, Akio chaired his 11th shareholder meeting.
From his seat as chair, Akio mentioned how he believed that Toyota was now at a starting point to become a company that can be trusted by people around the world, and he thanked the shareholders who have supported Toyota. Then, he spoke of Toyota employees and their families who have helped him achieve this together, where he shed tears.
Within the tears from the self-proclaimed “crybaby president” were:
“the struggles he faced as he took the lead in his battles”,
“thankfulness to the shareholders who have supported him”,
“gratitude to the employees and their families who have walked together with him during his term as president”,
and the various emotions and feelings he has experienced, including both pain and gratitude, over the past eleven years.
This concludes the Toyota Times series of articles that have been focused on the recent 116th Ordinary General Shareholders’ Meeting that took place in Japan on June 11, 2020.