Jim Press: A Driving Force in the Automotive World Featured

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Jim Press

A Driving Force in the Automotive World

Former Toyota North America and Chrysler President Discusses Working for a Japanese Company, the Automobile Industry, and Former Nissan-Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn

Starting out in the automobile industry at the age of 13, Jim Press has held just about every position the sector has to offer. After college, he began working as an administrator at Ford Motor Company. In 1971, Press took a job at Toyota and stayed with the company for 37 years before leaving to become the executive vice chairman and president of Chrysler. While at Toyota, Press helped expand the company’s worldwide reach, served as president and chief operating officer of Toyota North America, and became the first non-Japanese member of its board of directors. He has also worked as a senior advisor to the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance and Hyundai Motor North America. From 2015 to 2019, Press was the president of RML Automotive, and now he is the executive vice president of The McLarty Companies. Tokyo Journal Editor-in-Chief Anthony Al-Jamie talked with Jim Press about his career, the Nissan controversy, cross-cultural differences, and the future of the automotive industry.

TJ: Can you tell us how you first got into the automotive industry?
I was born into an automobile family and started working in the business when I was 13. I had summer jobs at a General Motors assembly plant. I studied at a college that was a business school with an automotive curriculum. I was building cars when I was seven years old. One of my jobs was as a mechanic at a gas station. In a freezing December in Kansas City, a guy had his car towed to us — a brand new Ford that wouldn’t start. I fixed it. It wasn’t hard. The guy, who happened to be a Ford executive in the regional office, gave me his card and said, “If you ever want to go to work for Ford, you let me know.” Don Keithley hired me [in 1969]. I then brought him to Toyota nine years later to run our Boston region. He’s still a friend. I owe him a lot.

TJ: What did you do at Ford?
I was a trainee calling on dealers, and my boss, who was the service and parts director for the region in Los Angeles for Ford, was recruited by Toyota in February of 1970, and he told me I had to go to work for him. I was a young guy. I didn’t know. It was the same year that Henry Ford said that the Pinto was going to push Toyota back to the shores of Japan. I stayed at Toyota for 37 years.

TJ: What was your first job at Toyota?
It was a small company then. It had just moved from a dealership into a headquarters, and there were about 300 employees nationally. I was in the service department, responsible for developing the service programs: the processes in the dealerships, uniforms, the Toyota service experience for the customers. But I was like an administrator, in charge of things like the vending machines, paper towels. I interviewed with Tatsuro Toyoda, the son of the founder, so it was that kind of a small family organization. I spent a lot of time in advertising and marketing, and dealer development. Then I went into the field and ran regions and even a distributorship. I had time running the airplane division, Lexus, auto operations, and then the company.

TJ: Do you think how you moved around from division to division so much was uniquely Japanese?
I don’t know about being Japanese. It’s probably just more Toyota, but Toyota focuses on the individual functions for success, not the total success. For example, for building cars, the process wasn’t designing a car. It was developing alloys and manufacturing processes to make cars. Then they made cars, and the whole company operated that way. Things like personal development, manufacturing processes, quality processes – those are the things that were built and focused upon and as a result, they really got good at building cars.

TJ: How would you contrast Toyota’s style to Tesla’s?
Toyota is a very conservative company. Japanese companies, and culturally in Japan, society cares about other people first. In America, it’s the opposite. Tesla is a good example of that. Tesla is about Elon Musk and how rich he’s going to be. He’s a very smart guy. I’ve been to his offices. They’re very young people there, and they’re very creative, very innovative, and move very quickly. Their cars are really technically advanced in software. But Toyota, on the other hand, checks every rock in the bridge before they’re going to go across it. They move methodically. They use tried and true technology. They move to new technology very slowly, only when it’s safe, sound, and financially prudent. There couldn’t be more contrast between approaches. I don’t want to detract from their accomplishment — [Tesla’s] cars are quite advanced. They have achieved operating processes and systems that are way beyond what normal companies would have done in the same time, but Toyota will stand the test of time. Toyota’s foundation has always been rooted in what it can do for the community, for society. The reason [Toyota] got into cars was to help post-war Japan rebuild and bring affluence to the Japanese population. Contrast that with a $2.6 billion payout for Elon Musk. It tells you a lot about the two cultures.

TJ: How about contrasting Toyota and Honda?
First off, Honda is a much smaller company and newer. Toyota’s foundation was built from the ‘30s in trucks. Toyota engineers who grew up in Aichi were basically farmers. They built reliable utility. Honda grew up in Tokyo building motorcycles. So, those two companies couldn’t be more different. The growth of Honda was all in North America. They’ve never had a presence in Japan like Toyota does; Toyota controls the market in Japan. So, Honda is small, they have fewer resources, and they really rely on innovative mechanical engineering. Toyota has a balance of innovative mechanical engineering, business, marketing, sales — all of those things. So, I think Honda has never really been a competitor for Toyota. The Accord was for a little while with the Camry, but they don’t have the market presence. They have a very nice, well-defined market, and a lot of loyal customers, but it’s a different league.

TJ: How was the experience of moving from Toyota to Chrysler?
I have more perspective and respect for Toyota because of my experience outside of the company. But now Chrysler is one of the best companies in the world because of [Sergio] Marchionne and Fiat. Chrysler has become arguably the best of the Detroit three companies.

TJ: What did you do after your time at Chrysler?
I’ve been lucky for the past 10 years to be living in the retail car business, which I really enjoy. I have learned so much. I keep wasting all my learning on old people. I wish I was younger, especially right now with the transformation the industry’s going through.

TJ: What was your role in working with the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance?
I was a senior advisor to the alliance. I worked closely with [former Chairman] Carlos Ghosn and his staff, as well as the key executives in Nissan and Renault, along with country heads. I was able to provide assistance and support for strategic decision-making, and I had a chance to see that company that he built with the Japanese and the French.

TJ: What is your take on Carlos Ghosn and the investigation into possible financial misconduct?
Well, I would think that the best place to start is the first 20 years, which is a lot of positivity. The people at Nissan with Mr. Ghosn and the alliance achieved tremendous success building that company into one of the biggest global powerhouses: manufacturing quality, cost, profitability, growth, bringing in Mitsubishi, working with Mercedes — all of those are significant accomplishments. That’s not just Mr. Ghosn, but with him the company was very strong. I had the honor of working with him and the company at that time and saw from the inside out that they were in a position to achieve any objective that they wanted. The last year, I’ve no idea what really happened. However, it’s a very unfortunate episode that changed the fate of Mr. Ghosn’s legacy and the success that Nissan was enjoying. We’ll see over time what happened. It has impacted Nissan’s performance substantially. Anytime you have an abrupt change of executive management and direction, you’re bound to have a period of difficulty while that abrupt change works its way through the system. It’s unfortunate that it happened, but it doesn’t really change the great things Mr. Ghosn and the company did over 20 years.

TJ: Do you believe this situation will contribute to any changes in the Japanese legal process?
It’s hard to generalize and say “the Japanese,” especially when it comes to the government and policing. I think it’s a situation where the outside world brings its interpretation of culture and society into another culture, and those don’t always line up. I have always tried to believe that “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” That doesn’t mean the Romans have to change to the way the visitors are either. But that does mean if you’re going to get a lot of visitors, they probably both have to have some consideration, adjustment, and change to interact with each other in a positive way. So, I think, hopefully, that will be one of the byproducts of this experience. The other thing I will mention, though, which is more sensitive: the most unfair element is [former Nissan executive] Greg Kelly, who was a bystander. [Kelly] was lured to Japan under false pretenses by a longtime trusted friend and remains basically a hostage, with very little chance of ever seeing the light of day. He can’t get a fair trial. He doesn’t have all the money, and it appears that he’s being held as leverage to try and get something out of Mr. Ghosn. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of this terrible episode. The treatment of Mr. Kelly and his family is something that should be considered to see how that could have been handled better, in my mind.

TJ: I understand that you’re also senior advisor for Hyundai Motor North America. Has that been a learning curve?
Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s like I’m in grade school again. The contrast is if Japan has a doppelganger kind of society, it’s probably Germany. If they fashioned themselves after somebody, having that kind of discipline, planning, correctness, and conservatism, they’re like Germany. If there was a doppelganger for Korea, I’d say it’s Italy. They’re more emotional, they’re quick, they’re very smart – driven. We used to have a saying back in the 70s that the Americans were in airplanes flying internationally first class and the Japanese were in coach. In the 80s, the Japanese were in business class. In the 2000s, the Koreans are in coach, the Japanese are in first class, and the Americans in business class. Koreans have a view of perfection and achievement. They want to set the world standard on design, quality ... Kia is the number-one-quality car in America along with Dodge. The people are brilliant and work tirelessly because they’re building a superior life for their culture and for their society. It’s not for the individuals. The Japanese did that, but the generation of Japanese today aren’t driven like the Koreans are. We were driven that way after the depression, but you could say America is not there at the table either.

TJ: Can you tell me about your company right now?
McLarty companies own auto dealerships, and I’m a strategic executive vice president. I provide strategic advice and counseling to automotive companies. Each of the sons has their own auto company and Mack [McLarty, former White House Chief of Staff for Bill Clinton] has his. I ran a subsidiary, RML, for five years and then I graduated to executive vice president of the companies.

TJ: What do you think has been your secret to success?
My secret to success has honestly been being blessed to work with wonderful people, being a good listener, and trying my best to help develop people. I’ve been in the people business, and we sell cars and love dealers. My family were dealers and I absolutely love helping dealers become successful. My focus is how to make the people I work with be the best they can be.

TJ: What advice do you have for Westerners interested in living in Japan or working for a Japanese company, and for Japanese interested in working abroad or for a foreign capital company?
Do it. Don’t even think about it. The treasure is the contrasting experience, where you learn so much by being in a different environment and seeing how other people think and do the same thing. Personally, I like being in a different world because I learn about my world and their world. In 1974, Toyota started sending these young, talented business school students to different schools in the United States, and I happened to grow up with them. This program developed Japanese executives with a complete understanding of doing business in America: the American society, culture, marketing, people, processes — all of the things that foreigners may have to adjust to. They grew up in both worlds, and so did I. The young man that’s now the CEO of Toyota Motor North America grew up that way. All these other companies pick somebody out of the blue and say go to America, and most of them struggle because they’re brought in at the senior level. Bring them in at a lower level, and that’s when you grow that rich foundation of understanding in both cultures.

TJ: Is there a big change that’s happening in the automobile industry?
I think technology is going to make people better. Electrification, autonomous driving, all of these are based on helping society. It took us 15 years to transition from horses to cars and now, with seven billion people on the earth, everybody wants a car. That has created issues that threaten the sustainability of our society. So, we are now solving those problems with technology. The environment, reducing the number of accidents, hours wasted in traffic, better using our assets – those transformational efforts are reshaping the industry to be much more focused on what customers want. The industry continues to grow, and that’s why I wish I was 20 years old facing this 100-year change. I spent 60 of the 100 years where the old way was perfected, now I’m going to miss out on the next 100 years, which is the new way. My goal now is to help people who will take on the industry for the next 100 years and give them the kind of life and blessings that I’ve had.


The complete article can be found in Issue #280 of the Tokyo Journal.

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor and Executive Editor. He currently serves the Tokyo Journal as Editor-in-Chief.

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