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Toyota president to testify to Congress today

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Toyota president to testify to Congress today

Analysts say company president's challenge is to be genial as he gets 'beaten up with grace'

Christine Tierney / The Detroit News

The spotlight now moves onto Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corp., who has agreed to testify today before Congress on the company's big recalls.

Toyoda, the grandson of the Japanese automaker's founder, will take full responsibility for the safety concerns weighing on Toyota and Lexus owners, according to his opening statement to the House Oversight and Government Reform committee. The company issued a copy Tuesday.

Toyoda will reiterate his plan to improve safety by stressing quality over quantity at the company which, he says, may have grown too fast in recent years.

But the challenge is how well the Japanese boss, less than a year on the job, can handle the question-and-answer session.

"He probably was in a bubble his whole life," said Adam Hanft, head of brand strategy firm Hanft Projects in New York and a blogger for the Huffington Post and other sites. "This is probably the most challenged he's ever been."

Hanft said he hoped that Toyoda had been prepped to understand that the bare-knuckle approach typical of House hearings is part of the American political game and shouldn't be taken personally.

"It's an opportunity for him to get beaten up with grace," he said.

Japanese executives can seem stiff and formulaic at such events. "He has to defy that stereotype and come across as warm, authentic, engaging," Hanft said.

Toyoda, 53, knows the U.S., having studied at Babson College and worked at the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. venture in Fremont, Calif.

But people expecting big disclosures or even another session filled with drama like Tuesday's pummeling of James Lentz, a senior American executive at Toyota Motor Sales USA, may be disappointed.

Toyoda will probably respond to questions in Japanese, speaking through a translator, as he did last year at an industry conference in Traverse City.

"It's going to be harder for anybody to question him with the full intensity that they questioned Lentz," said industry analyst Maryann Keller of Maryann Keller & Associates in Stamford, Conn. "You can't have this fluid exchange, where one interrupts the other," she said, when speaking through translators.

"I think the testimony will be unsatisfactory for everybody who expects a monumental revelation," she said.

"He's been CEO less than a year. Most of these cars were not made under his watch. What can you expect but an apology and a promise to try to do better?"

But by now, his ability to resolve this problem is limited, Keller said. "I'm not sure that he can do or say anything that's going to stop this train and reverse what has happened."



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