The press has pointed out that Akio Toyoda, CEO of Toyota, does not spend a lot of his time out of the office shaking hands and kissing babies the way that his US counterparts do. His appearance before Congress is unprecedented, both because of his apparent shyness and that he was asked, as the head of the largest industrial company in Japan, to accept a visit to the US where he is likely to be relentlessly grilled.
The questioning of Toyoda was expected to be sharp when the major issue before the Congress was a breakdown in his company’s quality control measures and how these would be rectified. Part of the interrogation was always likely to be about whether Toyota was slow to disclose problems with its cars.
Now, Toyota has become the target of a criminal investigation by a grand jury and was accused by several members of Congress of purposely distorting research. Toyoda is in for a cross-examination which will be similar to the one Howard Hughes got before the Bewster Committee in the Senate in 1947 when the industrialist was accused of taking money from the government to build useless airplanes and enrich himself.
Toyoda does not seem to be, by any measure that the outside world can apply, a man who is likely to defend his company punch by counter-punch before skilled and obstreperous American politicians. There may be one or two more smoking guns about Toyota cover-ups discovered before Toyoda walks into a hearing room. A willy American CEO skilled at public speaking and debate would probably whither under the barrage of questions. Toyoda is likely to do little better than stagger from the room when the committee is done.
One of the things that his appearance before Congress will show is that he is not up to the task of being the public face of Toyota. That will be added to the trouble at the company as his responsibility although many of the errors did not appear on his watch. Toyota needs to show the public an “about face”. The only meaningful thing it can do short-term is force Toyoda out.
Douglas A. McIntyre