Over my years covering the auto industry, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and get to know, to a certain extent, several important people. Some of them knew that they were important people and presented themselves that way. Others were the kind of people that you feel comfortable with. People who seem, sort of glossing Barbra Streisand, just like regular people.
One of the people in the latter category is Jim Lentz, who will be retiring from his position as CEO of Toyota Motor North America (TMNA) on April 1, 2020. He will be followed by Tetsuo “Ted” Ogawa, present chief operating officer at TMNA, whom I haven’t had the opportunity of meeting, but who I’m guessing has the same sort of genuine character exhibited by Lentz.
Lentz has been with Toyota for 38 years. No small feat, that.
He has faced many challenges over those years. Probably the most notable was the “unintended acceleration” problem that arose 10 years ago. But Lentz and his team handled that in a forthright manner.
Another challenge of an entirely different sort was the decision to bring several Toyota teams together on one campus in Plano, Texas. This meant that literally thousands of people were moved from places ranging from California to Kentucky. Again, this challenge was addressed with evident consideration regarding the impacts on the people.
The mark of an excellent manager is how the tough times are dealt with.
In his career at Toyota, which started in 1982, Lentz had many positions in marketing and sales. And for a good part of his tenure—every year since 1997, with the exception of 2001, the Toyota Camry has been the best-selling car in the U.S., something that it is more than likely to be for 2019, as well. (The Honda Accord took the crown in ’01).
This year Kyle Busch won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship driving a Camry; Toyota won the series’ Manufacturers Championship for the third time in four years.
The Toyota that Jim Lentz is leaving is certainly a different one than that he had joined.
Another mark of an excellent manager is leaving a place better than he found it.
The little car that could still can. And this time as a car that not only gets great fuel economy, but which has ride and handling that makes it more than an econo-box (and its styling is anything but boxy).
For conducting business in the U.S. market, Toyota has historically had several separate business entities: a sales and distribution company headquartered in California (Toyota Motor Sales, USA); manufacturing operations (Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America); a racing subsidiary (Toyota Racing Development, USA); the Toyota Technical Center for R&D in Ann Arbor; and a design facility in California (Calty Design Research, Inc.). On April 1, 2006, Toyota merged its R&D operations and its manufacturing operations into a single company.
Dan Nicholson is vice president of General Motors Global Propulsion Systems, the organization that had been “GM Powertrain” for 24 years.