New Toyota boss is aggressively Zen

Jim Press
As the executive in charge of U.S. sales, Jim Press helped Toyota enter the competitive — and very American — heavy truck market, analysts say. Damian Dovarganes / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

One of the most important auto executives in the country drives a pickup truck to work, greets employees by name and likes to relax by competing in triathlons.

Later this month, Jim Press will become the first non-Japanese president of Toyota Motors North America, overseeing sales and engineering divisions as well as 12 manufacturing plants in the U.S. and Canada.

In his last job as head of Toyota Motor Sales, Press led Toyota's rapid sales climb from a 9.3 percent market share in the U.S. in 2000 to 13.1 percent in 2005.

So far this year, Toyota is running ahead of DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group in domestic sales and has pulled closer to industry leader General Motors Corp., which commands nearly a quarter of the domestic market.

Press is known as a driven executive who works long days and is never far from his Blackberry. But in person, he is soft-spoken and humble, radiating a Zen calm he attributes to the 36 years he has spent with Toyota exposed to Japanese culture.

As the executive in charge of U.S. sales, Press was instrumental in persuading his Japanese bosses to build the kind of cars and trucks that Americans wanted to buy.

He helped Toyota enter the competitive — and very American — heavy truck market, analysts say. Early Toyota pickups just weren't powerful or tough enough for U.S. buyers. But the 2007 Toyota Tundra, scheduled to come out in January, has door handles wide enough to accommodate the thick gloves of construction workers and a center panel deep enough for a laptop computer, also an important tool on work sites.

The stories of Press's influence abound. The popular Sienna minivan, with its large cupholders, reflects his understanding of the American market and his ability to communicate that to Japanese executives.

"Toyota reflects Jim Press to some extent," said Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst with the consulting firm Global Insight. "Just as Jim Press has been able to blend in to this very Japanese company, this very Japanese company has been able to blend into the U.S."

He is credited with helping the Prius hybrid become a must-have among energy-conscious consumers. He also helped launch Toyota's new youth-oriented brand, Scion, which is helping the automaker play to the next generation of American drivers.

"It's really hard to argue with the success the group has had and certainly Jim was very much a part of that," said Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasting for the Michigan-based auto information company J.D. Power and Associates.

Press is also a managing director of Toyota, one step below the board of directors. Yet he brushes aside a suggestion that he could one day run the company in the same way Sir Howard Stringer last year became the first non-Japanese head of Sony Corp.

"In our company, we still have very good people," Press said in a recent interview. "Our company has many 'next in lines.' They don't need to move down to my place on the list."

Press was promoted after the departure of Hideaki Otaka, who retired as president of Toyota Motors North America after being accused of sexual harassment by a former assistant. Otaka said he expects to be vindicated and stepped down to avoid problems for the company. Press said the charges would be thoroughly investigated and noted Toyota has a zero-tolerance policy.

Press revealed that he had been stalked two years ago by a female employee, an experience he said gave him perspective on the harassment issue. Press was reluctant to elaborate, but said the problem was handled by the company's human resources department.

"I know how uncomfortable you can be made in the workplace," he said. "It worries you."

In his new job, Press will spearhead Toyota's push to capture at least 15 percent of the U.S. market.

In the first four months of this year, GM led all automakers with 23.8 percent of the market, followed by Ford Motor Co. with 17.4 percent. Toyota is No. 3 with 14.2 percent, just ahead of Chrysler at 14 percent.

A major challenge for Press will be maintaining Toyota's reputation for quality as the company seeks rapid growth against competitors such as GM, which has installed new management and is working to improve its sagging fortunes.

"It's not easy and it's something that internally we worry about," Press said. "We just have to keep understanding what got us here," he added. "We've got to keep paranoid."

Toyota's rise has not been without bumps. Its recalls doubled in 2005, and the company has not been able to keep up with the demand for the Prius.

Press said the company was diverting some hybrid components from its Prius line to get its new Camry hybrid up and running.

"By year-end, we will have produced more Priuses this year than last year," he said.

But Press said there are no plans to start building the Prius in the U.S.

"We started with the Camry hybrid here in Kentucky and that will begin the process of getting our suppliers located here and developing the capability and over time it makes sense for more vehicles of hybrid production in North America," Press said. "But right now there is no plan beyond the Camry."

Hybrid technology, which combines gas engines with electric batteries, will remain a focus of Toyota, even as the company explores other alternative fuel technology, including hydrogen fuel cells, ethanol and gas-ethanol mixtures such as E85.

"Ethanol can be a component, especially to stop dependency on foreign oil. But it's not the answer to everything," Press said.

In his new job, Press will move from his longtime base in Torrance, just south of Los Angeles, to Toyota's North American headquarters in New York. He spends about two weeks every month in Japan.

"Wherever my shoes are, I'm in my office," he said.

He said Toyota Motor Sales has no plans to leave California as Nissan Motors recently did when it relocated to Nashville, Tenn., to cut costs.

"This is the car mecca of the world when it comes to trends," Press said of Southern California. "Why would we move out of here? Where would we want to be?"

As he begins his new job, Press said he intends to focus on the fundamentals and not become satisfied with success or preoccupied with market share.

"My grandfather said, 'When you get to the top of the mountain, you keep climbing,'" he said.