TOKYO — Toyota's U.S. business has been a lifetime passion for Toshiaki Taguchi — from humble beginnings 50 years ago, when barely 100 Toyota cars were being sold a month, to the world's No. 1 automaker today.
At the automaker's Tokyo office last year, Taguchi, 69, the former head of Toyota's North American operations, watched with trepidation the live broadcast of President Akio Toyoda's testimony before Congress, as he fielded allegations of cover-ups and dallying in carrying out massive recalls.
Only in the last few weeks has Taguchi breathed easier. He is even feeling a bit vindicated. U.S. regulators closed their 10-month investigation and concluded that electronic flaws were not to blame for reports of sudden, unintended acceleration.
Taguchi, now an adviser to Toyota, says it will likely take at least two or three more years before Toyota's battered image in the United States can hope to recover, and acknowledged that overly speedy expansion was behind the recalls.
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"We grew too fast in the last decade, with so many new models and plants. Now is the time to get back to basics," Taguchi said.
'Back to basics' for the maker of the Georgetown-built Camry sedan amounts to working once again from scratch on building customer trust, according to Taguchi.
He should know.
Taguchi was a key figure in building the Toyota brand in the United States. The endeavor started when he was sent to its tiny Newark office as an intern in 1966, just two years after he joined Toyota.
He went on to become president and chief executive of Toyota North America in 2000, following stints at the U.S. operations in the 1970s and 1990s.
Today, Toyota is all-American, Taguchi says proudly, employing 30,000 Americans. Its dealers employ 100,000 Americans, and there are more if one counts suppliers, truckers and advertisers.
But over the past year and a half, Taguchi was forced to watch the rapid unraveling of the once-sterling reputation for quality that he had so painstakingly helped build over the decades.
What went wrong was the initial slow response, which drew suspicion that Toyota was hiding something and fostered the perception that quality had nose-dived, said Yoshihiko Natsume, a retired Toyota vice president, who oversaw quality control.
"Toyota failed to assess the problem quickly and respond properly, despite its long experience in the U.S. and familiarity with the workings of U.S. society. And that may have come from a certain arrogance in becoming No. 1 in the world," said Natsume, who has known Taguchi since the 1960s.
"We did not do as complete a job as we should have in answering to the expectations of our customers and of society," he said.