Former Georgetown chief St. Angelo exploring frontier market for Toyota

Toyota executive Steve St. Angelo, right, fist-bumped team member Theresa Talley as he entered the 2012 Camry that was introduced Aug. 23, 2011, at the Toyota plant in Georgetown.
Toyota executive Steve St. Angelo, right, fist-bumped team member Theresa Talley as he entered the 2012 Camry that was introduced Aug. 23, 2011, at the Toyota plant in Georgetown.

Steve St. Angelo, who once led Toyota's flagship North American plant in Georgetown, is soon heading to South America.

The executive has been tapped by Toyota leader Akio Toyoda to oversee operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

St. Angelo, 57, who will be based in São Paulo, Brazil, joined Toyota in 2005 after more than 30 years with rival General Motors. He was the second American to head the Georgetown plant, which is now led by Wil James.

He has tackled a number of high-profile assignments in recent years, including a stint as chief quality officer after the announcement of Toyota's highly publicized recalls. He most recently served as executive vice president of Toyota's North American manufacturing operations, which are headquartered in Erlanger in Northern Kentucky.

He took time last week to speak with the Herald-Leader about his future. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

On his new role: "As CEO of Latin America and the Caribbean, I'll have total responsibility for that region from marketing, sales, public relations, government relations, manufacturing and quality.

"As everyone knows, it's an emerging market, and it's growing fast. Toyota hasn't focused as much in that region because North America has been very important, China and, of course, Europe.

"People don't realize Brazil is the fourth-largest new-vehicle sales market in the world. There's still so much opportunity. The number of vehicles per population there is one of the lowest in developed markets, so there's a lot of opportunity."

On the models sold in the region: "We're just entering the Lexus lineup there. In the entire country of Brazil, we only have one Lexus dealership.

"The vehicles that we sell there with the Toyota brand are the Etios, which is an entry-level vehicle, and the Corolla, which is considered a luxury vehicle there. We also build some trucks, the Hilux trucks, which is a truck and also an SUV. Those are all built there, and we import several other vehicles from Japan including the Camry and the RAV4."

On why the job will be a good fit: "I've been pretty much in the operations side for 38 years with manufacturing, quality, production control and engineering. I really wanted to try something different.

"Being a chief executive officer of an entire region allows me to get more into marketing and sales and the government relations and cost and accounting. So it's like I'll be able to use some different muscles, and I find that appealing."

On why his new role might be similar to Fujio Cho when he led the Georgetown plant in the 1980s and 1990s: Cho is revered for bonding Toyota with the Central Kentucky community. "I think the reason Akio put me in this position is the leadership in Latin America and the Caribbean had been basically Japanese. He told me he needs a Mr. Cho type to go down there and help develop new relationships to create a real strong team environment and get our brand to be more known over there.

"Even though it's such a big market, Toyota has a very limited market share. Not many people know this, but the Brazil plant was the very first plant for Toyota outside of Japan over 50 years ago. Even though we've been there for so long, we haven't developed it as much as you would think."

On what he'll miss most: "I've been in Kentucky now for over eight years. I've made a lot of friends and developed a lot of relationships.

"I think those really strengthened during the difficult times we had at Toyota. I was pleasantly surprised on the amount of support I received from people in Kentucky, from the governor to the readers of the Lexington Herald-Leader. In fact, I would read the letters to the editor every day and many of our customers and just many people in the community wrote nice things and supported Toyota.

"I cut out each of those articles and found out where that person lived and sent them a card thanking them for their support ...

"We're currently not planning on selling our house. I've always said I would strongly consider this a place to retire."

On the role going forward for the Georgetown plant, which will begin producing the Lexus ES sedan in 2015: "Georgetown has been the flagship outside of Japan, and I see them continuing to play a very important role to Toyota Motor Corporation's success. Of course, this will take a lot of continued cooperation between the plant, the community, the suppliers, the dealers and the government officials.

"Georgetown needs to continue to be the big brother for North America and other plants. Now with Lexus, they have the pursuit of perfection."