The Motley Fool's readers have spoken, and I have heeded their cries. After months of pointing out CEO gaffes and faux pas, I've decided to make it a weekly tradition to also point out corporate leaders who are putting the interests of shareholders and the public first, and are generally deserving of praise from investors. For reference, here's my previous selection.
This week, I'm going to steer us back into the automobile sector and highlight the leadership of Akio Toyoda, CEO of Toyota Motor (NYSE:TM).
Hit the brakes
There are certainly a few of you that won't agree with my praise of Akio Toyoda and some of your pessimism is justified. Over the past year Toyota has struggled in the United States where it's allowed Ford (NYSE:F) and General Motors (NYSE:GM) to snag market share and lost the top-selling car title for its Camry, which it's consistently held for about a decade, to Honda's (NYSE:HMC) Altima and Accord briefly back in March and April.
Overseas in China, both it and Honda have had difficulty finding footing against fresher American designs from Ford and GM. It also doesn't help that relations between China and Japan continue to be touch-and-go which has hampered sales in the world's largest auto market.
Finally, the tragic earthquake in Japan in March 2011 crippled much of the Japanese auto industry, allowing U.S. automakers to shine and regain lots of previously lost market share both in the U.S. and overseas.
In spite of these setbacks, Akio Toyoda has led his company through a difficult period and is slowly setting Toyota up for another round of big profits.
For Toyota it all begins with bringing new and innovative cars to the consumer. Toyota, like GM, had gone a while without introducing major redesigns on some of its core vehicles. That all changed when the 2014 Tundra and 2014 Corolla got a facelift that's resulted in significantly better sales in the U.S. for both vehicles.
Another point to remember is that Toyota's Prius was the true first electric-hybrid to make it to market; and while it may be seeing a slight slowdown now in the U.S., presumably because of Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) and its all-electric Model S, the likelihood of an extended sales slowdown seems small. The reasoning being that the Model S' price point ($60,000) and the fact that plug-in infrastructure doesn't exist for a number of people, combined with its high production costs, leaves the Prius as one of, if not the, most eco-friendly "green" cars on the planet. That's a title that Toyota has been taking to the bank for more than a decade and it should sustain sales for many years to come.
Taking a chapter out of its peers in Detroit, Toyoda has managed to trim the fat, so to speak, at his company, delivering approximately $4.5 billion more in profits in fiscal 2013 than it did in fiscal 2012 solely because of cost-cutting . Overall, including a much weaker Yen which helped its vehicles sell better overseas, Toyota reported a 160% increase in profits in 2013 and forecast a 42% rise in profits this fiscal year .
A pedal above his peers
However, Akio Toyoda has done more than just turn Toyota back into the black after the earthquakes in 2011; he's provided impressive shareholder returns, taken care of his employees while taking home perhaps a less-than-fair piece of the pie for himself, and done more for the needy in the United States than you might be aware of.
Shareholders might stand in awe at Ford's 2.4% dividend and amazing run since it bottomed out in 2009 (and I'd fully encourage that as I've previously highlighted its CEO Alan Mulally as an incredible CEO), but Toyota has done well by its shareholders, too. Shares in the automaker have roughly doubled since Toyoda took over in 2009, all while paying out a yield slightly above 1% and reducing the number of outstanding shares through share buybacks by 6.5% over the past decade. Remember, share buybacks don't put money directly in shareholders' pockets like dividends do, but they do make a stock appear cheaper on a P/E basis.
As an employer, unions in the U.S. may not like Toyota, but it nonetheless employs 31,000 people worldwide and added 1,300 jobs and invested $1.5 billion in the U.S. last year . That's great news for auto workers looking for a job and for the U.S. that's looking for any form of foreign investment it can get to drive growth. The benefits a typical Toyota employee will receive aren't too shabby, either. Employees (depending on their location) receive 12 or more days of paid holiday each year with vacation accrual beginning immediately; may receive reimbursement for taking care of a dependent; and may be able to accommodate their work schedule around other activities through Toyota's flex-time scheduling.
What's unique about Akio Toyoda, though, is his take-home pay and his company's overseas giving. Last year, Toyoda took home just $1.9 million in compensation, which may sound like a lot, but is miles below his peers. By comparison, Ford's Alan Mulally and GM's Dan Akerson took home $21 million and $11 million, respectively. Toyota is getting itself quite a bargain through Akio's work ethic, and I truly believe Akio will not allow for a considerable bump in his compensation until Toyota's market share picks up in the U.S. and in other parts of the world.
In the U.S., Toyota really demonstrated its giving nature earlier this year by sharing its manufacturing expertise with the Food Bank of New York City to improve the non-profit organizations ability to serve food to the needy. According to The New York Times, Toyota's plans helped slash dinner waiting time by 80% to just 18 minutes from 90 minutes. Toyoda has shown that you don't have to open your pocketbook to make a big difference in people's lives – especially to those that are thousands of miles away!
Two thumbs up
Toyota Motor may not be my top choice among auto stocks, but Akio Toyoda deserves his credit for taking a struggling company that's dealt with recalls, earthquakes, and stiff competition, and managing to turn it around in a big way through new designs and cost-cutting. To add, Toyoda has done a remarkable job in expanding his workforce overseas, adding to shareholders' wealth, and ensuring that his company does what's right when it comes to the sharing of knowledge. To that end, Akio Toyoda, I give you two thumbs up!
Fool contributor Sean Williams is short shares of Tesla Motors, but has no material interest in any other companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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