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POWER ON THE PACIFIC RIM : Profiles : 10 Pacific Rim Giants Tread Own Paths to Influence : Shoichiro Toyoda: Hands-On Company Man

May 21, 1991|SAM JAMESON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — One is the illegitimate son of a wealthy industrialist. The foundation of another's fortune was a long-ago U.S.-backed loan.

A third is a notorious high-stakes gambler liable to risk millions of dollars in a day at the racetrack, while yet another furnishes his house in plastic.

A capitalist who backed a revolution is on the list, as is a refugee from communism who is now devoting much of his energy to courting his giant Communist neighbors.

They're all among the wealthiest and most influential businessmen in Asia--10 titans of the Pacific Rim. Not surprisingly, several of them have extremely close ties to the political leaders of the region. Five are ethnic Chinese. Six were born to wealth, but four others started from little or nothing.

Meet a diverse group of business leaders likely to continue having a strong influence on the shape of the region:

Although he is the grandson of the founder in a country in which most company presidents are mere employees, Shoichiro Toyoda, 66, chief of Toyota Motor Co., grew up with machinery.

As a child, he remembers playing "hide and seek" in his father's textile machinery plant next door to the Toyoda home. "Running around the factory, I often bumped into machines and came to understand their features. They permeated into my body. That is how I developed a friendly feeling for machines," Toyoda said in an interview.

And that is how he urges his company's engineers today to learn more about equipment.

"These days, engineers want to sit at desks in air-conditioned or heated offices and do their work. . . . I tell them they have to get out on the factory floor and walk around the machinery."

Toyoda has stayed close to the job at hand ever since his father dispatched him soon after Japan's defeat in World War II to work in a tiny company that made chikuwa (fish sausage) for the devastated nation.

For six months, he lived with the handful of employees on the second floor of the plant on the northern island of Hokkaido, often working 20 hours a day, sharing two or three potatoes for a meal and frequently struggling to meet the payroll, he said.

But even there, Toyoda's thoughts turned toward automation. He invented a machine to bake fish sausages on a conveyor. Sometimes, he recalled, the conveyor would break down, leaving the sausages to burn to a crisp above the charcoal embers. But working at the tiny enterprise "was a good experience," he added.

Today, efficiency at the world's third-largest auto maker (after GM and Ford) has won such a reputation that critics say Toyota "even squeezes a dry cloth" looking for a drop of cost-cutting.

Taking over in 1982 from Eiji Toyoda, the cousin of his father, who is now Toyota's chairman, Shoichiro Toyoda said he has acted as "just one of the bearers of the o-mikoshi "--a portable shrine that is carried through the streets during Shinto festivals. "With everyone shouldering part of the weight, there is never any problem in carrying the o-mikoshi. But you do have to be sure that it doesn't go off in the wrong direction." That, he said, is the president's job.

Even as Toyota has developed its highly efficient manufacturing system--praised as the most advanced in the world--the company upholds some very old Japanese customs.

The company name itself, for example, was selected because the number of strokes needed to write the three characters, "To-yo-ta," in the phonetic katakana alphabet is eight--a lucky number in the traditional art of omen-reading. Writing "To-yo-da," as in the family name, requires 10--an unlucky number.

Even today, Toyoda said, the company consults Shinto priests when deciding a name for a new factory or the direction a building should face.

The personal influence of Toyoda, like that of most Japanese businessmen, is hard to assess. But the soft-spoken, forever polite and usually smiling executive is being touted as the next chairman of the powerful Keidanren (Federation of Economic Organizations)--"the prime minister of Japan's business circles." Toyoda is now a vice president.

The impact of Toyota as a company is highly visible. Wage increases it approves set the national standard. Negotiations it carries out with steel manufacturers determine nationwide steel prices.

The company is so strong financially that it is nicknamed "Toyota Bank." Sales amounted to $60.1 billion, net income $2.9 billion and production 4.4 million units in the company's fiscal year that ended last June 30.

"When I went overseas for the first time in 1957, we were making 2,000 cars a month. But Volkswagen was making 2,000 a day," Toyoda recalled.

Yet, for all the accomplishments, Toyoda doesn't earn enough income to be listed among Japan's top taxpayers. His salary is believed to be somewhat above $250,000, or about 11 times the income of college graduates who joined the company this year.

Shares owned by all Toyoda family members, including the eight who work in Toyota Group companies, amount to slightly less than 1% of the total--or about $420 million worth.

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