Toyota has decided that their U.S. operations needs more autonomy and has begun appointing U.S. citizens to the chief engineer positions for vehicles sold here. Three of Toyota’s top American engineers have now been promoted to oversee development of the Venza, Avalon and Tundra.
The idea is radical for Toyota, which has traditionally had a centralized corporate structure, but the idea of hiring more Americans took hold after the recall crisis this year. The first two U.S. engineers were promoted a year ago, and the most recent promotion took place this month.
Chief engineers are in charge of development and design of new models as well as the manufacturing and supply chain, making this one of the most important positions within the company. In the past, Toyota usually appointed Japanese engineers to these positions, even if the vehicles they oversaw were only to be sold in America, like the Tundra or the Avalon models.
President of Toyota’s North American technical center, Shigeki Terashi, said that having Americans in the positions gives the local operations more input and autonomy. “A local chief engineer is more familiar with the market, with the customers, with the uses and conditions that the vehicle is subjected to. Localized chief engineers are better,” he said.
Terashi was moved to the United States to develop the Toyota Solara coupe and the Avalon from 2000 to 2004. Times have changed, however, and Toyota feels it needs a different approach.
In 2008, Terashi was again sent to the U.S. to oversee Toyota’s technical center, located in Saline, Michigan. At that time, the company experienced its first operating loss in seven decades. Because the decision making process was so centralized at the company’s headquarters in Japan, local voices who knew the market didn’t have enough input. Terashi saw the need to change this, and the first non-Japanese chief engineers were promoted the next year.
Randy Stephens now heads the Avalon project, Greg Bernas took over the Venza crossover, and this month they will be joined by Mike Sweers, who will be chief engineer of the Tundra. Spokesman Bruce Brownlee says the three men have almost 60 years of combined experience with Toyota.
Toyota would like to appoint local chief engineers in other markets as well, but the positions require a wealth of experience that takes years to acquire, says Terashi. Toyota’s U.S. operations have the advantage of years with the company, unlike operations in some other countries.
The U.S. technical center for Toyota was established in 1977, and was making vehicles here nine years later.
Terashi said, “This takes time. It’s not enough just to hire an American as chief engineer. The person also has to understand the way of Toyota manufacturing, the Toyota mind-set, culture and philosophy. So as a result, it took us some time to get to this point.”
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