Toyota's man in New York

Ardent swimmer uses work to relax

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June 13, 2006|By JIM MATEJA | JIM MATEJA,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Jim Press took a couple of days off this month for a little R&R in Florida.

He relaxed by attending a series of meetings with Lexus dealers from throughout the United States, while fitting in visits to the hotel pool.

"I swim six days a week and work seven days a week. Swimming is my work, work is my relaxation," Press said of his passion since he was 8. The holder of a Gold Medallion from the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Press talked while on break from dealer meetings.

"To some, sitting in a design studio all day is work. To me it's a dream."

When he can pull himself away from his "leisure," he also rides motorcycles and is a triathlete. But now, he has more pressing matters.

Last month, Press took over as president of Toyota Motors North America, the first non-Japanese to hold that position.

He had been in charge of North American sales for Toyota since 2000, in which time the automaker's U.S. market share rose to 13.8 percent from 9.3 percent.

Now, at 59, he is in charge of not just sales, but also engineering and manufacturing operations in the United States and Canada.

Press got the nod after Hideaki Otaka stepped down last month in the wake of charges of sexual harassment by a former assistant. One of Press' new duties will be to investigate those charges.

To observers, he is a good choice.

"His strength is his people skills. His faults: He doesn't have any," said Jim Hossack, vice president of AutoPacific, an automotive research and consulting firm. "He's so respected in the industry that when he makes a keynote address at an automotive event, executives from the other companies usually come to hear him."

From his days overseeing U.S. sales, Press is credited with insisting that executives in Japan provide vehicles more suited to American tastes rather than those designed for narrow roads in Japan.

"He was a genius when it came to product," said Bob Loquercio, a Toyota dealer in Elgin, Ill. "He Americanized the lineup. His strength is that he tells Toyota what it needs to hear and gets the product the customer and dealer want from them. He has a vision of where the market is today and where it's going in the future and is able to communicate that to his partners in Japan."

Those vehicles include the full-size pickups soon to be built in Texas and vans with popular items such as power-sliding doors and cupholders, features absent from those created in Japan and briefly sold here.

You can also add the gas/electric Prius, the mini Yaris and the entry-level Scion division to the notches Press has put on his belt in his 30 years with the company.

"The guy has been an inspiration, a motivator in his own quiet manner," noted Joe Phillippi, principal of AutoTrends, an industry research and consulting firm. "He leads by example, not by yelling and screaming in meetings. He's the guy who proved that given the responsibility, an American could lead the company in North America rather than have a senior Japanese executive in the shadow of the throne at all times."

His new duties will keep the father of three boys and a girl on the go. He maintains residences in New York, home to North American operations, and Redondo Beach, Calif., near sales operations. And he still will spend a week or two in Japan each month.

"I live wherever my shoes are," he quips.

At least plane travel doesn't bother him because he is also a certified commercial pilot, though he has yet to take the controls.

As for goals now that he runs the show in North America, Press said he will keep creating more vehicles customers want and adding more U.S. production capacity to build them.

Toyota has seven plants in the United States - No. 8, in San Antonio, is to come on line in the fall - and makes about 2.3 million units, or 57 percent of its North American sales, here annually.

Though Toyota is rolling in dough and sales and consumer praise, that does not make Press' success a slam-dunk.

"It's like being next on stage following a bunch of kids," Hossack said. "That's a tough act to follow. They say trees don't grow forever and Press' challenge is to continue the momentum Toyota has had going for it the last four decades and not falling short of what's gone before him."

Complacency is public enemy No. 1 to Press.

"To become even better, our long-range planning has to focus on listening to the customer and not thinking we are as good as our press clippings and becoming arrogant." Press reminds employees and dealers of that every chance he gets.

And, though passing General Motors Corp. in total U.S. sales is on many lips, Press insists that is not on his to-do list.

"The focus isn't on GM, it's our customers and our products. Moving ahead of GM may be a result, but it's not a goal."

Press is making another change in his life - switching his company car to a Camry from a Tacoma pickup. "With my office now in New York, a Camry hybrid is more practical."

Jim Mateja writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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