After weeks of speculation, Toyota Motor Corp. announces Executive Vice President Akio Toyoda will replace Katsuaki Watanabe as president.

Toyoda, the grandson of TMC founder Kiichiro Toyoda, will assume his duties in June, pending approval at the auto maker’s annual shareholders’ meeting that month.

Analysts see Toyoda’s appointment as a sign the company is looking at the founding family to pull the No.1 Japanese auto maker out of a long sales drought in light of the global economic downturn.

In the U.S., Toyota’s biggest and most profitable market, the auto maker has not posted a monthly sales increase in more than a year.

“It’s like he’s royalty,” a Japanese financial analyst recently told Bloomberg of Akio Toyoda. “They’ve made sure he has the right education to take over (the company).”

Like most Toyota executives, Toyoda, 52 and fluent in English, has spent time both at home and abroad. He was educated in Japan and the U.S., receiving a master’s degree in business administration from Massachusetts’ Babson College.

Toyoda oversaw the rollout of the auto maker’s G-Book telematics service in Japan in 1996, using $2,000 of his own money to fund a prototype, Bloomberg says.

In 1998, he moved to the U.S. to become vice president of Toyota’s joint venture plant with General Motors Corp., New United Motor Mfg. Inc. in Fremont, CA.

Toyoda also spent time overseeing Toyota’s operations in China, where the auto maker’s sales have been growing fast after a market entry that was later than that of its chief competitors.

Contrary to earlier reports, Watanabe, 66, will become vice chairman of TMC but will take over the chairmanship from former TMC President Fujio Cho. Watanabe will step in for retiring Vice Chairman Katsuhiro Nakagawa.

Meanwhile, Toyota announces its global sales fell 5% worldwide to 7.996 million units last year. The auto maker’s Japanese sales slumped 7%, while its overseas deliveries fell 5%. When including Toyota’s Hino Motors Ltd. and Daihatsu Motor Co. units, total global sales in 2008 were down 4% to 8.972 million units.

In 2007, Toyota sold 9.366 million vehicless worldwide, just shy of taking over the global sales lead from GM, which sold 9.370 million.