TOKYO (Reuters) -- Shigehisa Takada, the third-generation head of Takata Corp., shows little sense of the crisis engulfing the Japanese airbag maker at the center of one of the auto industry's biggest safety recalls, according to three people who have met him recently.
Just days before a Nov. 21 U.S. congressional hearing on defective Takata airbags that have been linked to at least five deaths, Takada told business associates he was personally dealing with the quality issues, and the company had identified and fixed the main cause of the defect -- which he said was mainly a flawed manufacturing process, the people said.
He told them that Takata had significantly improved its airbag propellant chemistry for bags it is using to replace defective ones, and the company now just has to step up and replace all suspect airbags as quickly as possible.
"He acts like this recall is going to blow by in due time and harbors little sense of crisis," said one of the associates, none of whom wanted to be named given the sensitive nature of their comments.
More than 16 million vehicles have been recalled worldwide since 2008 over Takata's airbag inflators, which can explode with too much force and spray metal fragments into the car.
Takata's handling of the massive safety recall has frustrated U.S. politicians and regulators and has confused drivers as to whether their cars need fixing or not.
Takada, the Tokyo-based company's 48-year-old chairman and CEO, apologized at the annual shareholders' meeting in late June, which was closed to the media, but has otherwise not been seen in public.
"He's a nice man, very sincere and seemingly capable, but he doesn't view this as a crisis spiralling out of control," said another of the business associates.
The scale of the recalls looks certain to escalate after U.S. safety regulators ordered Takata last Wednesday to expand piecemeal regional recalls of driver-side airbags to cover the entire United States, not just hot and humid areas where the inflators are thought to become more volatile.
Takada did not explain to the business associates exactly what Takata had done to improve the propellant chemistry and manufacturing process, and they said he should be explaining these changes publicly.
They said his reluctance or inability to do so may in part be due to the influence his 74-year-old mother retains at Takata, which was founded by his grandfather more than 80 years ago as a textile mill.
Shigehisa joined the family firm straight from university, became president in 2007, aged 41, and moved to the top executive post after the death in 2011 of his father, Juichiro, who built Takata into Japan's leading auto safety manufacturer.
Juichiro, known in the U.S. as "Jim Takada", was a rolled-up sleeves executive who donned a hard hat on site visits and once was spotted down on his hands and knees checking a faulty machine in a noisy textile plant in South Carolina, recalled a former colleague of the current CEO.
His son, he added, is very different -- "painfully shy, bookish and into computers ... very good with statistics."