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Grandson takes Toyota's driving seat

TOYOTA shareholders approved the appointment of the company founder's grandson, Akio Toyoda, as the firm's new president yesterday, hoping that reaching back to the auto maker's family roots would help steer the manufacturer out of its worst ever crisis.

More than 3,300 shareholders packing a hall at Toyota Motor Corp headquarters - a record attendance - showed their approval by applause for the selection of 29 new directors, mostly company executives and directors, including Toyoda.

Toyoda faces the daunting task of reviving the world's largest auto maker, which lost 436.9 billion yen (US$4.6 billion) during the fiscal year through March, its worst loss since it was founded in 1937. The company expects an even larger loss this year.

Toyoda, 53, formally became president at a directors' meeting later in the day. He replaces Katsuaki Watanabe, who presided over the shareholders' meeting in the central Japanese city that shares its name with the corporation. Reporters saw the proceedings live on a TV monitor at Toyota headquarters.

Worries over delays

Toyoda, the grandson of founder Kiichiro Toyoda and the son of Shoichiro Toyoda, a former president, spoke only once in the meeting, in his role as executive vice president overseeing Japan sales. The founder's family name is spelled with a "d," but the company name was changed to Toyota because that was considered luckier.

He responded to the worries of a shareholder about the delay in Prius hybrid deliveries because production hasn't kept up with booming demand, with deliveries not arriving until about November.

"We are very sorry to make customers wait," he told shareholders, standing at the corner of the stage with other executives. He assured shareholders everything was being done to boost production.

Many Japanese companies, including conservative ones such as Toyota, don't allow incoming chief executives to speak up too much until they officially assume their new position.

Watanabe, the outgoing president, who remains on the board as vice chairman, did almost all the talking at the two-hour shareholders' meeting. Watanabe had led Toyota since 2005 on an aggressive - and until recently a largely successful - growth track.

The company has been hit hard by the global slump, particularly in the United States, Europe and its home market of Japan.

Watanabe apologized for Toyota's recent losses, and said directors would forego bonuses.

Hopes were high among shareholders for leadership from a Toyoda - a name that holds a mystique in this city that depends on the company and its related businesses for thousands of jobs.

"He can bring people together," said stockholder Yuzo Watanabe, 59, who works for an auto parts maker and owns 1,000 Toyota shares.

In a news conference in January when his appointment was first announced, Toyoda promised a back-to-basics approach, valuing rank-and-file and consumer needs. He has another news conference set for tomorrow in Tokyo.


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