Lexus chief to replace Toyota’s founder grandson as company head

Akio Toyoda, Toyota’s chief executive, will step down as head of the company his grandfather, Kiichirō Toyoda founded, the automaker said on Thursday, handing over Japan’s biggest company to the leader of its Lexus luxury brand.

The 53-year-old chief branding officer and president of Toyota Motor Corp’s Lexus brand, Kōji Satō, will take over the company when Akio Toyoda becomes chairman on April 1, the press release stated.

The issue of who would take over the top spot at Toyota, one of the world’s most influential car manufacturers, has been an increasing focus for investors.

Cloistered rule

The succession announcement was broadcast on a webcast through the automaker’s Toyota Times channel.

There was also little mention of concrete corporate strategy or investment priorities to come. Toyoda said Satō’s mission would be to transform Toyota into a “mobility company”, without specifying what that would entail.

Sato said Toyoda had offered him the CEO job at the end of the year when both were in Thailand for an event to celebrate Toyota’s 60th anniversary of operations there.

One Toyota executive, who asked not to be identified, said the automaker was headed for a period of “cloistered rule,” referring to the period in Japan's history when a retired emperor continued to call the shots.

Past strategies

Under the 66-year-old Toyoda, who led the company for more than a decade, the automaker preferred to opt for hybrid technologies rather than embrace fully electric vehicles.

It also promoted hydrogen-powered cars as the future, raising fears it would be left behind by the rise of electric vehicles, as the flashier and more nimble Tesla Inc rose to the top in both innovation and share price.

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That insistence on hybrids and hydrogen also prompted criticism from investors and environmental activists who once widely praised Toyota’s technology and emissions record.

Akio Toyoda

During his time at the top, Toyoda presided over his grandfather’s company during a period of intense change in the industry and rising uncertainty about how legacy automakers can fend off the challenge from newer challengers such as Tesla.

Toyoda, speaking at a news conference, said his term at the helm of Toyota started in 2009 with “crisis after crisis” from the effects of a global recession, to Toyota’s recalls and safety crisis to the disruptions that followed the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan.

Kōji Satō

On Thursday, he said Kōji Satō was chosen because he “worked hard” to learn Toyota’s philosophy.

Satō started his career at Toyota in 1992, before rising through the ranks to become chief engineer of Lexus International, a luxury auto brand of Toyota, in 2016.

He has held positions as the president of Lexus International and Gazoo Racing Company, Toyota’s motorsport brand, since 2020. He also took on an executive role at Toyota and became its chief branding officer in January 2021.

Philip Craven, a Toyota director, said in a recorded video statement that the board had reviewed and approved the succession plan put forward by Toyoda and the outgoing chairman, Takeshi Uchiyamada.