Motor Corp.'s newly named president, Fujio Cho, 62, says his most memorable job was building Toyota's Georgetown, KY, plant from scratch.
"When I went to the United States, there was nothing," he tells a Japanese reporter. When he left Georgetown to return to Japan in 1994, employees gave him a 10-minute standing ovation. "They loved that man," says an associate who was there.
Mr. Cho this month officially succeeds his longtime associate, Hiroshi Okuda, who will remain influential as's chairman. Mr. Okuda says Mr. Cho is well suited to lead Toyota through today's turbulent times, particularly in Japan where automotive sales continue a two-year slide.
"He has shown outstanding talent in improving production. And he won praise for his success in setting up our operation in Kentucky," he says.
That may be putting it mildly. Mr. Cho, who in recent years served as TMC's executive vice president, joined the parent company in 1960. He was president of Toyota Motor Mfg. U.S.A. (TMM) for six years until 1994, and is fondly remembered by U.S. business associates as a warm and genuine man, with a smile that lit up a room.
"He saw his role as one of listening and learning, not just telling people what to do," says TMM spokeswoman Barbara McDaniel, who worked with Mr. Cho in the early Georgetown years. "He was the kind of person who would come to your office, pull up a chair and say: 'I need to understand this. I thought you might be able to help.'"
Others remember him as a plant guy, dedicated to the Toyota production system. "He loved to be out on the plant floor," says one insider. "He was as comfortable in a hard hat as he was in the boardroom."
Mr. Cho also was comfortable in the rural community, with its narrow tree-lined roads and plantation-era houses. While other Japanese executives chose to live in the more urbane city of Lexington, Mr. Cho insisted that Georgetown was his home, never missing a single Rotary Club meeting.
Not one to turn down an invitation, he joined a group of American team members once a week to drink beer and watch boxing. "I wondered if he knew what he was getting himself into," recalls Alex Warren, retired senior vice president of operations at Georgetown. "I guess so; he did that for two years."
Tom Zawacki, general manager of administration for Toyota's Kentucky operations, recalls the time he invited some Japanese coworkers over to picnic and fish. To his surprise, one person brought along Mr. Cho. "Mr. Cho fished all day, talking about his childhood experiences back home and his love of fishing," says Mr. Zawacki, who previously worked forMotor Co. and Motor Co. Ltd.
"Here I was, sitting on a dirt bank with one of the most powerful and influential business leaders in the world. He was so grassroots, down to earth and likable. I couldn't help but think this could never happen at the other companies."
Those who know him say Mr. Cho is the ideal everyman. "He never sought attention," Mr. Warren recalls. "He was embarrassed when the focus was on him."
That's not to say Mr. Cho didn't have an opinion. He just never took issue with anyone. Rather, he sought to learn why people felt the way they did. Teamwork was his mantra. He talked it, believed in it, and gave others a chance to buy into it. He was a supreme consensus builder.
"He said time and time again, 'We can't do business as a Japanese company,'" Mr. Warren says. "'We are in America and we must do business as Americans do.'"
The Georgetown plant was special because it was the first time Toyota was on its own. "We had to redefine how everything was going to be," says Mr. Warren, who had worked at places such as Rockwell and U.S. Steel.
"We had to debate our policies, format how we would operate the company." Other Toyota plants eventually came and they pretty much followed the model. All flowed from that crucial initial startup.
Georgetown was successful, Mr. Warren believes, because everyone concerned held a stake. "If you have a president who stops and talks to you and listens, you feel good about that," he says of Mr. Cho.
"And everybody did. I've never run into a more humble human being. He had an uncanny ability to love the people around him. To treat them with dignity and respect."
Analysts say Mr. Cho's appointment is unlikely to bring about broad change at Toyota, noting he most likely will continue carrying out Mr. Okuda's aggressive plans to help Toyota reshape its business in a global industry.
Says Mr. Warren: "Mr. Cho will work subtly. You won't hear from him, but he'll be there pulling it all together."