By David Shepardson
(Reuters) – Toyota Motor Corp (T:) on Wednesday said its North America chief executive, Jim Lentz, would retire on April 1, and tasked the unit’s chief operating officer, Tetsuo “Ted” Ogawa, with navigating an industry shift to electrification and automation.
Ogawa has worked for Japan’s biggest automaker and the United States’ third-largest vehicle seller in a number of posts since 1984. He was appointed to his current role at Toyota Motor North America in November 2018.
In a statement, he said Lentz “was instrumental in the restructuring and bringing our North American region together.”
Lentz, a 38-year-veteran of Toyota, said his long tenure including almost seven years at the helm was in part a function of the automaker’s culture.
“We have a long-term view of things and try to keep our eyes on the horizon and not get sea sick with all the dips and twists and turns,” Lentz, 64, said in an interview. “The new normal in the world is a little more chaotic and so we have to do a better job of scenario planning.”
While the industry is facing a dramatically different future with the rise of electric, connected and autonomous vehicles as well as mobility as a service, Lentz said he saw the change as more evolutionary and revolutionary.
Lentz also noted automakers are still grappling with the continuing shift in U.S. consumer preference toward sport utility vehicles (SUVs).
Toyota is building a $1.6 billion joint venture assembly plant in Alabama with compatriot Mazda Motor Corp (T:) that it expects to open in 2021. In July, Toyota said it would build SUVs at the plant rather than its Corolla line of cars.
Lentz said overall U.S. auto sales were around 400,000 vehicles higher than the firm forecast last year, and estimated the industry would sell about 17 million vehicles in 2019.
Lentz guided Toyota in the United States through a number of challenges, most notably the 2010 unintended acceleration crisis that prompted the recall of millions of vehicles.
In 2014, Toyota agreed to pay a $1.2 billion fine and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Justice Department after it admitted to misleading consumers in relation to the matter.
More recently, Toyota under Lentz improved its relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump and helped stave off vehicle import tariffs. Lentz attended a White House event in July after presidential adviser Ivanka Trump toured Toyota’s Kentucky operations in March.
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