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It’s good to be challenger: Toyota Korea CEO

Toyota Korea out to woo local markets with hybrids, compact SUVs

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Published : 2013-02-24 19:40
Updated : 2013-02-24 20:41

Korea is one of the few countries where Toyota Motor, the world’s largest carmaker, is not a dominant player.

In a market where domestic brands Hyundai and Kia make up almost 80 percent of car sales, Toyota comes in fifth place among foreign brands, after the German carmakers; Toyota Korea’s market share stands at a tiny 1 percent.

But Tommy Nakabayashi, CEO of Toyota Motor Korea, doesn’t complain about the unique business environment in Korea. Instead, he is willing to take on new challenges and learn from them. 
Tommy Nakabayashi. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

“It’s good to be a challenger,” said the 54-year-old CEO in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.

“Korea is a dynamic market where our global rivals such as German and Japanese carmakers as well as Hyundai compete fiercely. It’s challenging but quite interesting.”

Unlike German brands targeting mostly high-end customers, it is unavoidable for Toyota to compete directly with Hyundai in almost all car segments just as in other global markets.

“Hyundai is now equipped with the best business model after learning from trials and errors of U.S. and Japanese companies. In order to survive both in Korea and globally, I also want to study more on Hyundai,” he said.

The CEO, who oversaw the Japanese auto giant's Korean launch of the Toyota brand in 2009, took office as the Korean chief in 2010. The year 2009 was also the same year Hyundai withdrew from the Japanese market after years of sluggish sales.

When he first arrived in Korea, Toyota’s luxury sedan Lexus was enjoying its heyday. Toyota’s ES model, in particular, was called the “Gangnam Sonata” ― Sonata being a popular Hyundai car ― at the time due to its ubiquitous presence in the affluent southern districts of Seoul.

But a double whammy of disasters ― the massive recall in the United States in 2010 and the devastating earthquake and tsunami in its home country in 2011 ― hit Toyota hard and the Korean unit as well.

Then the seventh-generation Camry debuted in Korea last January amid prevalent skepticism about Toyota’s recovery. Less than few months after the launch, however, the car proved to be a game-changer.

The flagship sedan became the second-most sold import car last year after BMW’s 520d. Its unexpected winning of the 2013 Korea Car of the Year, which was unprecedented as a foreign model, surprised many, especially the CEO.

Led by Camry’s stunning performance, the Toyota and Lexus brands posted a 73 percent growth in sales last year. Their combined market share increased from 8.69 percent to 12.05 percent among import carmakers.

“It was totally unexpected. The year 2012 would be unforgettable,” he said.

Coupled with the price competitiveness and product quality of the U.S.-made Camrys, the Korean chief believes actress Kim Tae-hee, who appeared in the car’s TV commercials, played a key role in elevating car sales.

Picking Korean actors for commercials is one of the localized marketing activities that the CEO, who tries to make opening remarks for major events in his fluent Korean, has emphasized.

During the London Olympics, for instance, 14 Toyota dealerships in Korea put up a banner supporting Korean players, not the Japanese.

This year, Toyota Korea aims to continue the current sales momentum with new launches such as the Rav4 compact sport utility vehicle, the Avalon sedan and the Lexus IS.

“Our brand image has been a little bit old thus far. But we will step up efforts to lure younger customers with new lineups as well as hybrid models,” he said.

Toyota Korea has set a sales goal of 18,000 vehicles this year, including 11,000 for Toyota and 7,000 for Lexus, about 15 percent growth from last year’s sales of 15,771.

Nakabayashi, who majored in politics and economics at Waseda University in Tokyo, joined Toyota in 1982. He has served diverse sales and marketing positions covering Asia, South America and Africa.

By Lee Ji-yoon (jylee@heraldcorp.com)

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