Isao Makino had been president of Toyota Motor Sales, USA beginning in 1975. Small in stature with a square jaw and a serious but unforced smile, he was a no-nonsense Japanese president who had the respect of all the dealers and associates. He traveled one week a month visiting dealers to listen to their concerns about what was happening in the market and what Toyota could do to help them compete.
Mr. Makino asked me to accept a lateral move from sales to the service department to be the National Customer Relations Manager. I struggled to not show my disappointment. The real “game” in the car business is in sales and marketing. Service and part jobs were in the back where you got your hands dirty and nobody noticed. The customer relations manager’s job was the least desired of all the positions in the service department and the company. It was a thankless job that no one cared about and had no future. This would take me completely out of the game and put me in the dugout. I told Mr. Makino no.
The next morning, Toshiaki “Tag” Taguchi, a young senior coordinator for the Japan staff, visited my office. Tag was a serious, thoughtful man who spoke excellent English and had an easygoing demeanor. Our careers would cross many times over the coming years. He politely informed me that you never say no to a Japanese president. Mr. Makino asked that I reconsider his request. I smiled nervously and, despite my misgivings, something inside me softened. I went back and told Mr. Makino I had reconsidered and would accept the position.
Customer relations was a grinding struggle—day in and day out, call after call, letter after letter, dealing with people who were upset and angry. The department had an owner satisfaction budget to pay for complaints after the warranty expired, but the budget was small, and by the last week of the month the money had all been spent.
It was the end of the month. I can remember his name and can still hear his voice even now, 30 years later. Andrew M. of New Jersey had the planetary gear in his transmission fail 1,000 miles after the warranty expired. Every morning at 9:00 he would call, screaming at me over the phone. Driving into work I would listen to John Williams’ musical score to Superman The Movie to prepare myself to do battle with Andrew M. It became personal. I was out of budget and Andrew’s car was out of warranty. The answer was, “No!” He finally stopped calling. I had won.
Mr. Makino called me to his office. He had received a letter from Andrew. I carefully explained to Mr. Makino that the department was out of budget and that this man was very abusive and did not deserve any help.
Mr. Makino studied me slowly. “Transmission should not fail,” he said in halting English.
“Yes, I know, but he is very abusive,” I replied, my voice rising with alarm. “I can’t go over budget, and his car is out of warranty.”
Makino said softly, “Still, transmission should not have failed. We should pay.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I cringed inside, groaning softly, and tried to hide my displeasure. Mr. Makino took notice, “Why are you so upset? This will make our customer happy.” He told me to let it go and get over my hurt feelings. It was okay for me to lose when the customer wins.
Customer relations was a bruising experience. I considered my education in it unpleasant and unnecessary. I needed to get back into the real “game” of sales. The glamour in the car business is selling cars, not satisfying customers. I could not imagine any car company ever placing more emphasis on customer satisfaction than sales. It seemed God had forgotten me.
Then, Mr. Makino asked me to take another lateral move to be the National Market Representation Manager. I resisted, but felt a gentle nudge inside and again accepted reluctantly. I had done as Mr. Makino had asked and paid my dues, but I was still not in the real “game” of sales, instead just sitting in the dugout. I wanted back in the “game.” Market rep. was an uninteresting, paper-driven job that processed market studies and dealer agreements, did dealer facility planning, and reviewed all financial statements. Dealer agreements contained over 30 complicated legal and financial documents. My previous employer, Chrysler, had about four thousand dealers and would accept any warm body with enough cash to start a dealership, believing the more dealers, the more sales. Toyota had only 1,000 dealers. What was the big deal? This was another unnecessary detour in my career. All the dealer agreements and market studies had to be signed by Mr. Makino.
I reviewed my first dealer agreement with casual indifference and forwarded it to Mr. Makino’s office for signature. I was called to his office, thinking I was going to pick up the signed agreement. I walked into his office and stepped back in disbelief. Mr. Makino was on his hands and knees with the dealer agreement spread out on the floor before him. He had been carefully reviewing all the documents and was not satisfied with the financial pro-forma worksheet in the dealer agreement package. He believed the working capital requirements were not calculated properly and the dealer was going to carry too much debt. I learned the hard way. Market representation is a big deal. You only need 1,000 dealers when they are the best.
Mr. Makino was called back to Japan in 1983. Yuki Togo, the President of Toyota in Canada, was named the new President of Toyota Motor Sales, USA and Bob McCurry was named Executive Vice President, the lead American reporting directly to Togo. It was during this time that the TMC Board of Directors in Japan approved the secret project called “Flagship 1.”
“Listen to God’s voice…he will keep you on the right track.” Proverbs 3:36 (MSG)
Shortly after Mr. Makino left, I was promoted to the General Manger of Denver Region. Finally, I was no longer in the dugout. I was back in the sales “game!” But I would strike out.
(To be continued Thursday in “Striking Out!”)