Toyota's new top sales executive in Europe couldn't be more different from his ultra-dynamic predecessor, Juan Jose Diaz Ruiz.
Greek-born Takis Athanasopoulos has been named chief operating officer of Toyota
Motor Europe in Brussels and becomes the top-ranking European in the company.
The 56-year-old head of independent distributor Toyota Hellas in Greece fills the gap created by Diaz Ruiz's departure six months ago. Diaz Ruiz left Toyota to join Fiat Auto as head of sales and marketing.
Unlike the fast-talking, hard-charging Diaz Ruiz, Athanasopoulos - a former college professor - is cool and composed. That could help him get along better with Toyota's distributors around Europe.
'He has a calming presence and an air of authority,' said a Toyota executive.
Athanasopoulos joined Toyota Hellas in his homeland in 1986, and was appointed chairman and CEO of the Toyota-owned distributor in 1989. During his tenure Toyota became market leader in country, rising from almost no presence in the market to first place in both sales and customer satisfaction surveys.
Athanasopoulos begins his new role in Brussels on January 2 and will report directly to Toyota Motor Europe Chairman Akira Imai.
'He is definitely a very different kind of man to Diaz Ruiz who was a bit agonizing at times,' said a Toyota distributor who asked not to be named.
Toyota insiders source said the company wanted an executive who would have the full support of the entire European sales organization.
Imai said Athanasopoulos 'will be in a position to strengthen our ties with all our distributors in Europe, and to develop the right strategic approach throughout the value chain.'
Evert Louwman, chairman of Louwman Group, Toyota's Dutch distributor, said Athanasopoulos has 'broad perspectives and sharp analyses of the automotive world. He not only has great economic experience but really understands the business, and the relationship between manufacturer, distributor and dealers in particular. On top of that, he is a warm personality.'
The US-educated Athanasopoulos began his professional life as a university economics professor in the USA. He continued his academic career in Greece and began consulting work.
When Toyota Motor Europe asked UK dealer group Inchcape to set up Toyota distribution in Greece, Athanasopoulos was asked to advise.
'It was a matter of sheer coincidence that I ended up in the car business,' he said. 'It took only a few weeks before I was hired permanently,'
Athanasopoulos takes over just as Toyota has passed Nissan as the No. 1 Japanese brand in Europe on the strength of the strong-selling Yaris. Toyota is also preparing to launch production of the Yaris at its new plant in Valenciennes, France, in 2001.
Toyota sales in Europe are up 15 percent in Europe through November. Market share has risen to 3.7 percent, up from 3.1 percent in the same period last year.
But Athanasopoulos has a long way to go to build the Toyota brand in Europe, says Imai.
The chairman says it could take another 10 years before he is happy with Toyota's brand image in Europe.
The Japanese automaker now plans to boost brand perception with the launch of its Formula One team in 2002 and by introducing a new performance badge for production models called T-sport.
'Improving our brand image will require a long-term effort,' said Imai. 'It may take us five to 10 years. We need to stay in Formula One for a long time.'