How Toyota Can Restore Its All-American Image

Last Updated Feb 25, 2010 5:14 PM EST

On Wednesday, Toyota's former top man in the U.S., Jim Press, sent a remarkable e-mail to Automotive News in which he said that his former employer had been hijacked by "anti-family, financially-oriented pirates." Press spent more than 30 years at Toyota, and is certainly qualified to comment on its culture.

As the first non-Japanese to serve on the Toyota Motor Corp.'s board, Press' words--made public because, he said, "I can't stand it any more"--carry considerable weight. And they go a long way toward explaining why Toyota has undermined its decades-long effort to establish itself as an American-based company putting Americans to work.

"I believe that Toyota has always worked for the benefit of the United States," said embattled President Akio Toyoda. "I tried to convey that message from the heart, but whether it was broadly understood or not, I don't know."

For a time, Toyota's effort to blend into the heartland seemed to work. It was less than two years ago, for example, that Fortune magazine had a cover story about Toyota headlined: "America's Best Car Company." The photo featured the stars-and-stripes, a Toyota pick-up and a positively giddy group of American workers.

But the recall crisis has changed all that. The image of a company tightly controlled from Japan, keeping its U.S. managers in the dark, is becoming cemented in the minds of both legislators and the public.

In response, at a rally in support of President Toyoda Wednesday night, Toyota dealers displayed a map of the U.S. showing Toyota's many pockets of employment around the country. And the National Association of Manufacturers weighed in Tuesday as well. NAM's president, John Engler commented:

Toyota is an important company that has been creating manufacturing jobs in the United States for more than 50 years...Across the nation, the company contracts with hundreds of suppliers, employs thousands of workers and contributes significantly to local economies. Thus, we think it is important that not only Congress but also the public give Toyota a fair hearing.
After an unconscionable delay, Toyoda has certainly apologized, profundly and frequently; at the dealers' rally, he broke down in tears under a huge company banner. But he is also refusing, unlike his U.S. counterparts, to admit that there could be electronic causes of sudden acceleration. And since many of the legislators have embraced that possibility, reconciliation--and the end of the crisis--seems far away.

Toyota is now precisely where it doesn't want to be. The company is perceived as secretive, foreign and--since the release of an internal document celebrating a "win" for avoiding a large-scale acceleration recall--more interested in profit than safety.

This is where Press's comments come in. In his remarks, he said that safety was once Toyota's top priority, but no more. He does not blame Akio Toyoda for this; Toyoda, grandson of the company founder, took over less than a year ago. Indeed, Press believes Toyoda is "the only person who can save Toyota" because he, unlike the financial pirates, "has the character necessary to maintain a customer-first focus."

Toyota recently hired crisis management firm Glover Park Group, and it has been sending me upbeat news releases--including one about the rallying dealers. One hopes that, privately, the firm is also urging the car-maker to make full disclosure and to explore every possible cause of sudden acceleration.

In the short-term, that will be costly. But in the long term, it is the only way that Toyota can restore its all-American image.