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Toyota’s Reluctant Prince, Akio Toyoda

Will CEO and family heir survive his rendezvous with destiny?

by on Feb.24, 2010

The 53-year-old Akio Toyoda's future may depend on his performance before Congress.

He’s known, in Japan, as “the Prince,” groomed from childhood to take control of the family business, but whether Toyota President Akio Toyoda can rise to the occasion, or will be felled by indecision, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, could come clear on the floor of a Capitol Hill committee room later today.

One thing is certain: the man who charged into his post, last year, under the mantle of reform, now faces a far more serious task than he or his backers could have ever imagined when he was formally anointed CEO of the world’s largest automaker.

Toyoda’s appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will cap two days of contentious hearings meant to examine an ongoing safety scandal touched off, last October, when Toyota reluctantly agreed to recall 3.8 million cars, trucks and crossovers to handle concerns that those vehicles might race out of control unexpectedly.

Since then, there have  been a spate of additional recalls, bringing the vehicle total to more than 8 million, while still more Toyota products are targets of ongoing safety inquiries.  Meanwhile, investigations that could lead to possible criminal charges against Toyota and its management team have just gotten underway.

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“It’s time for decisive leadership,” said analyst Joe Phillippi, of AutoTrends Consulting, but the 53-year-old Toyoda initially seemed reluctant to step into the worsening safety scandal.

Toyoda was nowhere to be seen when a second recall for unintended acceleration – this one to repair potentially sticky accelerator pedals – was launched on January 21.

A Japanese TV crew eventually found him at the annual conference of world leaders in Davos, Switzerland, where he issued a quick apology before jumping into an Audi driving him away from the event.