TOKYO -- The top Toyota executive tasked with reinvigorating the company's celebrated Toyota Way for the future mastered its core principles not in the factories of Toyota City but on Renault's shop floors, one of the industry's ailing automakers at the time.
Didier Leroy, Toyota's first non-Japanese executive vice president, insisted on rotating through the factories of Renault, passing up promotions along the way, to learn the basics of car-building. At the time, the French carmaker, his first employer, was fighting for survival.
Little did he know in the 1980s, but Leroy's passion for being hands-on exemplified a root philosophy cherished at Toyota: genchi genbutsu, going to the source to see for yourself.
It was that passion that got him noticed and on the fast track at Japan's No. 1 automaker.
"I don't want to start from the top. I want to learn from the floor, by doing myself," Leroy says of jumping ship to Toyota in 1998. "I didn't have any problem accepting a position within Toyota that was three, four, five levels lower than I was. I don't care what it says on my business card."
Fast forward to today, and his significantly more illustrious business card says quite a bit.
Leroy, 58, is one of four executive vice presidents on the board. He is also the president of Toyota's operations in the key markets of North America, Europe, Japan and Africa. That makes him responsible for two-thirds of Toyota's global sales.
In April, he added another title, one completely new to Toyota: chief competitive officer.
CEO Akio Toyoda gave him that role as part of a companywide overhaul to keep the carmaker sharp in an era of tumultuous change triggered by electrified vehicles, autonomous driving, connected cars and the challenge of selling 10 million vehicles a year.
"In this kind of fast-moving world, nobody can say we are protected," Leroy says. "We have to find another way to make sure we are not just one, but two, steps ahead of the competition."
Leroy and Toyoda have laid out the following priorities:
- Toyota needs to lead in next-generation electrified powertrains.
- Toyota should shift to selling data and services from simply selling vehicles.
- Toyota must adopt a leaner, more agile corporate culture with a startup mentality.
"Toyota has become too big to respond speedily to severe changes," CEO Toyoda said in May while outlining the overhaul. "From a financial standpoint, we believe that we have built up the strength to take on these challenges. However, our initiatives are still in the implementation phase. This year will be a test of whether we can transform our intentions into reality."