Jim Colon has been a Toyota executive for 30 years.
Nothing in that time had prepared him for last year’s recall crisis that wound up including nearly 8 million vehicles. To date, 80 percent of the affected vehicles have been repaired within nine months compared to the industry average of 70 percent for a typical recall.
For Toyota, the public relations hit turned out to be especially tough because the automaker’s success has been built on the triangle of quality, durability, and reliability.
There was something iconoclastic about the way the mainstream media jumped on the story and never let go, ignoring a slew of other recall notices by other manufacturers during that same time period.
“To say it’s been a challenging year for us is an understatement,” says Colon, vice president for Toyota Product Communications. He was in town to meet with the New England Motor Press this week *Oct. 12*.
Colon refused to take the bait when asked if the three Congressional investigations into Toyota’s actions could be construed as Xenophobic, given the government’s auto industry bailout and obvious desire to keep the domestic Big Three (GM, Ford, Chrysler) as viable manufacturers.
“There’s been no ‘Woe is me’ attitude,” he says. “Instead we’re looking forward. We maybe didn’t react as fast as we wanted this time. But what we’ve become a better company for it and focused on the lessons we’ve learned.”
1. “You cannot over-communicate, not to your customers, the government, or your dealers.”
2. “We have to realize that, to the outside world, there is only one Toyota. Internally, that hasn’t always been the case.”
3. “There’s no such thing as knowing your customer too well.”
Indeed, it was at the grassroots local dealerships where Toyota’s employees (3,300 at 42 Massachusetts dealerships) repaired vehicles, reassured owners, and took steps to reestablish brand confidence.
Two of the recalls seemed minor. If drivers didn’t keep their floor mats on their hooks, they “could” bunch up under the gas pedal. Also, the chattering brakes that called for reprogramming the ABS computer program in 150,000 Prius and Lexus vehicles was more of a TSB (technical service bulletin) issue.
The sticking gas pedals issue, however, needed to be addressed faster. It’s a lesson Colon said has been learned.
Meanwhile the company faces ongoing lawsuits from the unintended acceleration crisis, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration continues its industry-wide investigation into whether there’s an electronic cause for these events.
“I’m confident there are no ghosts to be found in our electronics,” says Colon.
Meanwhile, Toyota has added a “Smart Stop” system in which the brake pedal will override the accelerator if both are pushed simultaneously.
And Toyota is offering a two years or 25,000 miles of free service with to buyers of new Scions and Toyotas.
In Greater Boston, Toyota remains the No. 1 retail brand with a 21 percent share of the light vehicle market with three models-Camry, Corolla, and Tacoma-No. 1 in their market segment.
“For us, it all comes back to that quality, dependability, and durability,” says Toyota’s long-time East Coast spokesman Wade Hoyt. “We’re not about being exciting.”