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Grandson of Toyota founder takes the wheel

AKIO Toyoda, the grandson of Toyota's founder, was named president of the Japanese car maker yesterday as it struggles to ride out a slump in the global market that dragged annual sales lower for the first time in a decade.

Toyoda, 52 and currently executive vice president, will replace 66-year-old Katsuaki Watanabe as president in June. Watanabe, whose second two-year term ends in June, will become vice chairman.

The widely expected selection of Toyoda marks the first time a Toyoda family member has taken the helm at Japan's No. 1 car maker in 14 years and comes on the heels of the company announcing that global sales last year fell 4 percent to 8.972 million vehicles. Toyoda has been groomed for years for his eventual rise. But his appointment comes a bit sooner than some had expected. Chief executives in their 50s are relatively rare in a conservative corporate culture like Japan's that values seniority.

"I am simply determined to do my utmost in being handed this big role of steering Toyota as it faces what has been said to be its worst crisis in a century," Toyoda said in a news conference in Nagoya, near Toyota headquarters.

The founder's family name is spelled with a "d," but the company name was changed to read Toyota as that was considered luckier according to Japanese superstition, Toyota says.

A fresh face, and the mystique of the Toyoda family name, may be exactly what the ailing car maker needs to bring its ranks together and send a strong message of change, analysts said. Company employees say the Toyoda family name holds special meaning, although the Toyodas own only a tiny portion of the car maker's stock.

The maker of the Prius hybrid and Lexus luxury models is forecasting a 150-billion-yen (US$1.65 billion) operating loss for the fiscal year - its first such red ink in 70 years - as the global economic downturn dents demand for new vehicles.

"Toyota is raising the flag," said Yasuaki Iwamoto, auto analyst at Okasan Securities Co in Tokyo. "It sends a strong message that moves toward change will be sped up. And that's an important message."

His appointment is symbolic, Iwamoto added, because Toyota tends to be managed by a team of leaders.

The friendly and unpretentious Toyoda - grandson of Kiichiro Toyoda, who founded Toyota - was one of the youngest executives to join the board in 2000.

Toyoda, who holds a master's degree in business administration from Babson College in the United States, has overseen Toyota's China operations, Japan sales and the Internet business.


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