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Jim Lentz becomes highest-ranking American Toyota executive

2012 LA Auto Show Features Automotive Innovation

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Jim Lentz, President and CEO Toyota Motor Sales, USA, delivers a keynote speech during the Los Angeles Auto Show. Lentz was named Tuesday to a new position, making him the highest-ranking American executive at the automaker.

Toyota is the largest carmaker in the world, but over the past few years, it’s struggled with recalls, natural disasters and a loss of U.S. market share. Now the company has made some boardroom changes and in the process is turning more American.

Jim Lentz, who joined Toyota in 1982, will now run all of North America for the giant automaker, whose U.S. headquarters is in Torrance, south of Los Angeles.

The company made the announcement on Tuesday. 

Lentz is the highest-ranking American yet at the Japanese company, surpassing Jim Press, who became the first American to serve on Toyota’s board of directors in 2007 before leaving to take an executive role at Chrysler.

Mike Michels, Vice-President of Communications for Toyota Motor Sales, said that this was the first time all North American operations, from marketing to manufacturing, had been unified under a single executive.

"This will streamline decisionmaking and enable more local autonomy," he said.

Toyota has traditionally been managed from the very top down, with critical strategic and operational management concentrated in Japan. However, the company has developed a number of American executives in the past 20 years.

"Certainly we have a pretty strong bench," Michels said. "Jim has a very strong feeling for what customers and what dealers need. H doesn't have manufacturing background, but he'll have have an executive committee to advise him there."

Michels added that the decision to increase Lentz's responsibilities came from Akio Toyoda, the carmaker's President and grandson of its founder. He has been striving to reorganize and revitalize the company in the aftermath of its struggles over the past few years.

So far, his efforts have been largely successful, as Toyota has regained lost market share in the ultra-competitive U.S. market.

Toyota also added former General Motors executive Mark Hogan to its board, making him the first American from outside the company to get a seat.

As for where Lentz will be based, Michels said it will be "on an airplane," as Toyota's new top American jets between Southern California, New York and Japan.

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