How Toyoda beat the ‘selfie king’

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The President receives the vehicle keys to 20 Toyota Vios and 10 Toyota Innova units, all made in the Philippines, from Akio Toyoda. Others in photo, from left, are Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Ty, and Suzuki.

My Toyota Hiace van, made in 2004 when Toyota Motor Philippines (TMP) was just 16 years old, was my trusty chariot when I entered the basement parking of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Bonifacio Global City late afternoon of Aug. 1.

Security was eye-of-the-needle tight in and around the spanking new hotel, what with President Rodrigo Duterte being the guest of honor at TMP’s 30th anniversary celebration at the grand ballroom, which was scheduled to commence in a few minutes.

Of all the possible chances that the parking card dispenser could run out of cards, it had to happen right at the very moment I was about to enter.

The Presidential Security Group (PSG) was about to close the ballroom doors, and I was still stuck at the parking barriers, waiting for my knight in shining armor to refill the depleted card slot.

Finally, after what seemed to be an interminable three minutes of honking, my knight appeared, refilled the dispenser, and raised the bar. I prayed that I was still in time. Otherwise, this evening dress I spent three hours digging for in my baul would have been for naught.

It wasn’t the sight of the President I was excited about, though seeing him in the flesh for the first time was quite intriguing.

What I really looked forward to was seeing Toyota Motor Corp. (TMC) president Akio Toyoda again, five years after meeting and interviewing him one-on-one in Japan for the first time.

Had he changed? Was he still that bubbly, charismatic leader who exuded so much zest for life? I heard he just flew in from Europe, and I was afraid the jet lag of a long-haul flight would’ve drained him considerably.

I was more than happy to learn that the ballroom doors were still open by the time I got there, nearly an hour beyond what the media invite indicated.

It turned out that Mr. President was an hour late to this appointment. Lucky me, though, since it wasn’t even five minutes after entering the ballroom—already jampacked with media, VIPs, government officials, waiters, production people, etc.—that the PSG closed the big doors, and no one could come in anymore.

Good thing no one waited with bated breath for the grand entrance of the President of the republic, otherwise he or she would have turned blue and dropped dead. We waited more than an hour, standing in high heels or formal shoes.

Nevertheless, we turned the threat of developing varicose veins into an opportunity to hobnob with those in our immediate surroundings, and to some extent (because over 800 of us were packed in), do a little people-watching.

I chatted with Metrobank Foundation president Chito M. Sobrepeña, and I could see his wife Anna Isabel with Cherry Tan-Ty (wife of TMP vice chair Alfred Ty and daughter of billionaire Lucio Tan) standing by the VIP couches, taking a groupfie with Toyoda.

Behind me stood Cagayan de Oro Representative Rufus Rodriguez. Beside me was radio jock and TV personality Boom Gonzales.

And then we heard Freddie Aguilar’s folksy voice singing “Para sa Tunay na Pagbabago” (a reworked “Ipaglalaban Ko”) on the PA system. That was Duterte’s cue. And everyone’s cellphones and SLR cameras clicked as he marched into the room.

Finally, at 11 minutes past 7 in the evening, nearly two hours delayed, the program started in earnest.

Of course, you would never see nor hear the Japanese officials—always polite and punctual—fret about such holdups.

From the stage, Toyota Motor Corp. president Akio Toyoda (right), takes a groupie with guests of Toyota Motor Philippines’ 30th anniversary celebration. With him in photo, from left, are TMP vice chairman Alfred Ty and TMP president Satoru Suzuki.

Toyoda, TMP president Satoru Suzuki, and other Toyota executives reverently bowed and shook the President’s hand, then promptly took their seats on the stage.

The series of speeches for that night started with Suzuki welcoming the guests, and formally announcing the start of the 30th anniversary celebration.

Then Ty took his turn at the podium and expressed gratitude to the Philippine government for its support to the auto industry, citing the recently launched Toyota Vios’ inclusion in its Comprehensive Automotive Resurgence Strategy (CARS) Program.

Ty then enumerated the three pillars of Toyota’s global campaign.

First, he said, was the need for a synergistic approach in long-term car-leasing and a modified ride-sharing business in collaboration with leading ride-hailing companies.

This meant coming up with a total value chain package that would allow affordability through flexible financing packages, deliver convenience for vehicle maintainance, and coming up with a trade-in facility for replacement.

Second was TMP’s commitment to work with various stakeholders to attain zero emission with the use of environment-friendly vehicles.

“Thanks to the incentive approved by the government for hybrid and electric vehicles, (the Prius) has become affordable to more conscientious buyers,” Ty said.

Third and last was the autonomous driving technology.

And then it was Duterte’s turn to execute his speech. We were expecting the President to go on another long-winded tirade of sorts. But then, he pulled a surprise.

“Are you ready for the cocktails? I have three pages to read, and either we finish it up or we go home,” Duterte joked. People laughed.

He went on. “If you allow me to talk extemporaneous, you’ll be standing there for an hour and a half. So I’ll just read my speech.” I could hear my groaning legs thanking Duterte profusely.

And so, Duterte kept his word, and read his short speech, which was quite boring for his standards.

My heart skipped a teeny bit when he read the part about business and the law: “As we continue to institute reforms and governance, Toyota Motor Philippines can count on my full support as it continues to bring the standard of the automotive industry to greater heights.

“Today I send a message to the rest of the business community. This government will protect you and your investments, and will ensure a level-playing field for you to thrive in as long as you are with the laws of the land, and safeguard the welfare of your people and general public.”

No aimless ad libs, no crisp curses. Good.

The President went on: “Continue to become examples for other corporations to emulate. Show everything that big corporations can give back to the communities.”

Duterte then mentioned the carmaker’s CSR initiatives. And in true Duterte fashion, he tied this all up with his administration’s overriding campaign: “Your initiatives that uplift the lives of our underprivileged countrymen are in line with the administration’s focus of eradicating illegal drugs, criminality and corruption in order for business to grow.”

The speech was over in about six minutes—monumentally brief for the President’s standards.

Afterwards, TMP held a ceremonial turnover of 30 vehicles, represented by 30 car keys, to the Philippine government. These 30 vehicles comprised of 20 all-new Vios and 10 units of the Innova MPV.

The climax of the event, however, was yet to come. It was when Toyoda took his turn at the podium. I was glad to see that he still had enough energy in his tank to be as effervescent as ever.

He eagerly said: “Once, we left. But we are here now, never again to stop our business. That is a promise to the Filipino people.

“As I was flying to the Philippines yesterday, I found one very important fact about your country. Did you know that the city with the most number of selfies taken in the world is right here in the Philippines?

“So, before I close, I have one request. Can I ask your permission to take a selfie with all of you?”

Then he took out his smartphone, turned his back to the crowd, and took a humongous groupie.

That brought the house down. That single shot must have equaled, if not surpassed, all the selfies of the “selfie king” SAP Bong Go (who was there, as always, with the President).

The “feel-good” Toyoda is much more than just your charismatic charmer of a business leader. He could also roll with the punches, as proven by the many storms the carmaker, under his watch, weathered in many parts of the world, on its way to becoming the planet’s biggest automaker.

The grandson of Toyota founder Kiichiro Toyoda also loves life in the fast lane, quite literally.

He participates in rallies, and even took the steering wheel in grueling races such as the Nurburgring 24-hour endurance.

He also likes to take paths less taken, such as when he explored the city of Shenzhen via bike sharing.

In 2013, I spotted him at the Lexus RC 300h booth at the 43rd Tokyo Motor Show. I took a deep breath, and introduced myself. He graciously allowed me to interview him at length. Then he handed me a gray business card showing that he was the chief branding officer and “master driver” of Lexus International.

When he learned that I was a Filipino, his face lit up, and he said, “Send my love and prayers to the Filipino people.”

Toyoda, among the most powerful men in the world, according to Forbes Magazine, was quietly weaving his way around the display booths of Tokyo Big Sight.

Lady luck was smiling at me five years ago with this chance meeting with Toyoda. She smiled at me again when I was able to beat the PSG to the ballroom doors.

Naturally, I smiled back when Toyoda took his grand groupie.



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