Humans > Personnel

Being president of Toyota PH isn’t a walk in the park

The new one, Atsuhiro Okamoto, is thankfully aware of this

Toyota Motor Philippines’ steering wheel is in good hands. PHOTO FROM TOYOTA

If you’re merely a casual observer looking from the outside in, it’s easy to assume that the job of a successful car company’s top boss is a piece of cake. Especially if that company is the market leader and the top boss is a Japanese expatriate who enjoys a generous housing subsidy, moves around in a chauffeured executive sedan, and commands a well-oiled corporate machine that’s easily the best in the business.

Except this can’t be farther from the truth. If anything, life as the leader of an automaker that owns 40% of our territory’s total vehicle sales must be nerve-racking. Precisely because the firm is perennially triumphant, any person tasked not only to maintain the status quo but even to surpass his predecessor’s achievements, has his head glued to the chopping block. What might seem like a dream job to many is quite possibly a nightmare to him on most days.

It’s a good thing, then, that the newly appointed Toyota Motor Philippines president Atsuhiro Okamoto fully grasps the enormity of his position. When we met him for the first time during TMP’s thanksgiving dinner for journalists in January, he immediately struck us as somebody who took his latest assignment with all the seriousness in his being. He is not going to mess this up, he must be telling himself these days. The first thing he told us when he shook our hand was: “Please support me; I know how important the media’s role is in our business.” Ah, humility and flattery deftly rolled into one loaded sentence—this guy knows what he’s doing.

The new company boss is not averse to ditching his elegant business suit for a workman’s outfit. PHOTO FROM TOYOTA

The 51-year-old chief, a graduate of Keio University in Tokyo, is a Toyota man through and through. He joined the car manufacturer in 1992 and tenaciously climbed up the marketing ladder within the organization. Before coming here, he had been the executive vice president of Toyota Motor Asia-Pacific in Singapore, overseeing his employer’s performance in the ASEAN region.

It is thus safe to say that Okamoto-san is an expert in dealing with different nationalities and cultures. Which qualifies him as a politician. And in the Philippines, being one is always an advantage. At the party hosted by TMP to formally welcome him as company president, he confidently worked the crowd of VIP guests that included lawmakers and cabinet officials. He took the stage and understood the weight of the moment. In his speech, he narrated how the eruption of Taal Volcano coincided with the start of his job at TMP, and then expressed his admiration for Filipinos and their resilience.

“As TMP’s new president, I would like to reiterate the importance of dedicating our work to the betterment of society,” he said (or read from a script, to be precise). “We would like to continuously provide ever better-cars and ever-better mobility solutions to enhance the quality of life of Filipinos.”

The Japanese executive speaks to VIPs at a party feting his appointment. He did well. PHOTO BY VERNON B. SARNE

A couple of weeks later, photos of Okamoto trying different modes of Philippine public transportation—yes, including the iconic jeepney—began circulating on social media. In a post on his official Facebook page, he said he wanted to “go and see the daily struggles of Filipino commuters.”

We’re sure all of this is partly staged, likely the result of intimate consultation with his marketing team. But it takes a smart and self-assured boss with a healthy sense of team spirit to happily go along with the ideas of his subordinates. When one of his marketing officers at TMP asked him for an old picture to be used in an audiovisual presentation, Okamoto spent one weekend flying back to Japan and rummaging photo albums from his younger years. What company president would do that?

Speaking of Facebook, Okamoto’s page now has more than 16,000 followers. He wants to be seen as a dynamic leader who isn’t out of touch with what’s happening around him, and is actually familiar with the people he’s selling cars to. He definitely wants to let others know he is approachable and down for a small talk if they run into him outside of the office. We already see shades of Toyota Motor Corporation president Akio Toyoda in his management style.

The new TMP boss seems to have fun riding the MRT. He should try this during rush hour. PHOTOS FROM TOYOTA

At the above-mentioned media thanksgiving dinner, Okamoto-san pulled us aside to have some whiskey and a chat with him. He has a way of making you feel important in a ballroom filled with really important individuals. We asked him: “Let’s say we put you on a spectrum with your two TMP predecessors. On the leftmost end is Michinobu Sugata, who is extremely sociable, and on the rightmost end is Satoru Suzuki, who is famously reserved. Where would you be?”

“I’d be right in the middle,” he replied, before cheerfully sipping his single malt.

We took it to mean that he knows when it’s time to be hard at work, but also when it’s appropriate to whoop it up. We like this dude.

Expect to see more of this man on social media. Transforming Toyota Motor Philippines into a more accessible car brand in our market is not going to be a walk in the park. But Atsuhiro Okamoto will give it his best shot.

Vernon B. Sarne

Vernon is the founder and editor-in-chief of VISOR. He has been an automotive journalist since July 1995. He became one by serendipity, walking into the office of a small publishing company and applying for a position he had no idea was for a local car magazine. God has watched over him throughout his humble journey. He writes the ‘Spoiler’ column.