Toyota remains focused on customer care, top U.S. executive says
By Muhammed El-Hasan, Daily Breeze
In a wide-ranging interview, Kazuo Ohara, president and chief executive of Torrance-based Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., explained how the Japanese automaker remains in a “recovery phase” after its reputation for quality was damaged by more than 10 million vehicles recalled due to sticking gas pedals and incorrectly installed floor mats.
“Customer trust and our reputation have to be recovered,” said Ohara, striking a humble tone. “I am pleased that it is steadily moving forward. The recovery is the most difficult task for me.”
Ohara, who took his current post in April at Toyota’s Torrance headquarters, spoke about the challenges he and his company face, as the annual LA Auto Show starts this week.
“The basic thing is we wish to keep focusing on the customer and there are no shortcuts and we have to get back to the basics and we should do everything for the customer,” said Ohara, 56, who lives in Rancho Palos Verdes. “That is why we are having many recalls, even for minor problems, to show our sincerity.”
Since the mass recalls, which lasted from late 2009 to early 2011, Toyota and other automakers have been announcing recalls for technical glitches that in the past may have gone under the radar.
Toyota also made changes to its corporate structure to focus more on quality control and catch technical problems before they lead to a recall.
For example, the carmaker in 2010 established a Special Committee for Global Quality to re-examine its quality standards. The company also formed a so-called SMART group, or Swift Market Analysis Response Team, to aggressively investigate customer reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.
In addition, Toyota appointed a chief quality officer for North America as well as a chief safety executive for the continent.
“Our structure for customer care has been strengthened substantially in the past several years. So it’s working,” Ohara said.
At Wednesday’s auto show media preview, Toyota moved to further demonstrate its increased focus on customers by unveiling a research vehicle to combat driver distraction.
The vehicle, known as DAR-V, for Driver Awareness Research Vehicle, uses a combination of gesture and voice controls as well as other technologies to find better ways to help motorists keep their eyes on the road and their focus on driving.
The mass recalls cost Toyota its perch as the world’s No. 1 automaker. However, its efforts since then have allowed it to return to the top spot, even though many potentially costly and embarrassing lawsuits connected to the unintended acceleration problems are pending.
Ohara said he is “very optimistic” about the company’s future because of improving economic fundamentals and an expanding auto market.
Aside from being an important global company, Toyota also serves as a major employer in Southern California, with direct employment of about 5,800 people. That includes 1,700 at the Torrance headquarters and another 300 in Long Beach.
Ohara emphasized that the company has no plans to move to another state, unlike Nissan, which relocated its North American sales and marketing headquarters from Carson to Nashville, Tenn., in 2006. In February of this year, Honda said it is moving its North American headquarters from Torrance to Ohio as part of an effort to consolidate functions. Honda’s U.S. headquarters will remain in Torrance.
“California is the biggest market (in North America),” Ohara said. “So at this point in time, we have no plans to move our office somewhere else.”