Toyota says it’s no longer profitable in North America

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Toyota says it’s no longer profitable in North America

David Shepardson / The Detroit News

Washington — Toyota’s top executive in the United States said Monday the company was reviewing its entire operation here, including whether to close a factory in California and when to open a factory in Mississippi.

In an hour-long interview with reporters at Toyota’s Washington office, Yoshimi Inaba said Toyota is not profitable in North America despite cost cutting in the organization, but he said he hopes the company could be profitable in its next fiscal year in North America. Inaba, who is president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor America and chairman and CEO of Toyota Motor Sales USA, is taking up his responsibilities at a crucial time for the Japanese automaker.

Toyota’s sales have fallen 38 percent in the first six months of the year — to 770,000 cars and trucks from nearly 1.25 million vehicles in the first six months of 2008. U.S. industry auto sales fell 35 percent in the first half of the year.

Among the issues the company is considering in its re-evaluation process is whether to keep open the 25-year-old New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. assembly plant in Fremont, Calif. The plant, which employs 4,700 people, is a joint venture formed with General Motors, but the Detroit automaker recently withdrew from the pact during its stay in bankruptcy court.

"That put us in a very difficult position," Inaba said. "We are carefully evaluating all the options."

He didn’t commit to a timetable for a decision on Nummi, but said a decision would be made "quite soon." He said Toyota hadn’t received an incentive package from California yet.

The hourly workers at Nummi are represented by the United Auto Workers, and the contract expires next month. Inaba said the UAW contract "is one consideration, but not the single deciding factor."

Inaba noted that California is Toyota’s single biggest market in the United States, and closing the factory would negatively impact its image there.

The company also is contemplating what to do with its Mississippi plant. Toyota has completed the structure, but not moved equipment into it or given a date it might open because of the sharp decline in auto sales. It was scheduled to open next year. Toyota has said it may build the Prius in Mississippi, but Inaba said those plans are unclear.

Asked whether Toyota could shelve its Mississippi plant permanently, Inaba said, "I hope not," and added, "I’m not that pessimistic" about its future.

"Toyota is certainly at a crossroads with respect to capacity," said Michael Robinet, vice president of global forecast at CSM Worldwide. "Virtually every manufacturer is stepping back and looking at their capacity."

Inaba refused to rule out layoffs or plant closures at its other North American plants.

Inaba said the company had made mistakes in making too many decisions in Japan, urging more "decentralization" of decision-making.

Because of Toyota’s success for the last eight years, there was an attitude among some executives that, "OK, now we have been so successful, we understand the market, so can make a decision there rather than here," Inaba said.

Inaba said the company is listening to the market, and customers "had been a little bit lost."

When asked whether Toyota had become complacent, he said, "Complacent or arrogant — a lot of people use that — I don’t know," he said, adding that the company had tried to guard against those qualities.

Inaba acknowledged that Toyota vehicles had often lacked "passion" and that the company’s vehicles must be "more exciting, more nimble."

"Toyota is a good car but not exciting. Those are the comments we usually (or) always get," Inaba said.

Inaba said he supported the decision of the U.S. government to rescue General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC with $65 billion in loans. "Stepping into Chrysler and GM was a necessary step for the government, for the country," Inaba said.

But he said he hoped the U.S. government would have a "free-market level ground in mind in deciding what to do next."

He also said GM and Chrysler were right to shrink their dealer networks. Toyota, he said, has no plans to expand its dealer network in the U.S.

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