Obituary: Eiji Toyoda / Turned Toyota into a worldwide export giant

Sept. 12, 1913 - Sept. 17, 2013

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Eiji Toyoda, who spearheaded Toyota Motor Corp.'s expansion in the United States as the automaker's longest-serving president, died Tuesday at a hospital in Tokyo. He was 100.

Mr. Toyoda died of heart failure, Toyota Motor said in a statement.

During his 57-year career, the younger cousin of Toyota Motor's founder helped reshape a maker of Chevrolet knockoffs into an automaker whose manufacturing efficiency became the envy of General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. By the time he stepped down in 1994, the company was assembling Corollas in the U.S., had started the Lexus luxury brand and had initiated a project that would develop the world's most successful gas-electric vehicle, the Prius.

"He played an important role in leading Toyota's expansion into North America, and in developing the carmaker into a global company," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, said. "He was someone who was indispensable to the nation's entire industry."

Mr. Toyoda was a cousin of Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder of the company that bears a slightly altered version of the family's name. He was one of six presidents to come from the family.

During the 69 years he worked at the company, based in central Japan's Toyota City, it rose from assembling its cars out of parts made by GM to being 16 times more valuable than the Detroit-based automaker. Mr. Toyoda pushed his company to learn from Ford and GM about mass production of automobiles.

Mr. Toyoda became president of Toyota Motor Co. in 1967 and served for 15 years -- longer than anyone before or since. In 1982, Toyota Motor and Toyota Motor Sales Co. merged to form Toyota Motor Corp. Mr. Toyoda became chairman of the combined company, serving until 1992. He was made honorary chairman of the company upon retirement and kept the title of honorary adviser.

Under his stewardship, the carmaker set up at least 10 new factories, began exporting to dozens of countries, established just-in-time production and built a reputation for manufacturing excellence. The Corolla became history's best-selling car. He stressed the importance of manufacturing concepts that became central to Toyota's production methods, such as "kaizen," or continuous improvement, and "jidoka," or the use of machines that shut down when irregularities are detected.

His greatest achievement may have been laying the foundation for the company to apply its manufacturing expertise overseas, which led to the formation of Toyota's first venture in the U.S. in 1983 -- a year after he passed the presidency to his cousin, Shoichiro.

That venture, New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., in partnership with GM, began production in 1984 in Fremont, Calif. Its success showed that Toyota's manufacturing principles could be applied across different cultures, giving the company the confidence to make its own independent plants in Kentucky, Canada, England and France.

He also oversaw Toyota's development of Lexus, approving development of the luxury car in 1983 to compete with Mercedes-Benz and BMW. The first vehicle, the LS 400, went on sale in the U.S. in 1989.

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