Following His North Star
Jim Lentz said he never aspired to be a CEO. And a formative event early in his career-- that led to a demotion -- seemed to seal that fate.
The mild-mannered Midwesterner always had a passion for cars. His first vehicle, a 1964 Chevrolet Corvair that he inherited from his aunt, had a rust hole in its floorboards.
“Every time I went through a puddle, I had to lift my feet to keep from getting wet.”
When Lentz left his suburban Chicago hometown of Glen Ellyn to attend the University of Denver, he figured he’d become a certified financial analyst, assuming his lifelong love of hockey or his exceptional golf skills didn’t lead to a professional contract.
Of course, Lentz followed his other love and did wind up in the automotive industry. And over his more than 40-year career, he did scale the corporate ladder at Toyota — rising to the top rung in 2012 as chief executive officer of Toyota Motor Sales in the U.S. Then in 2013 he became CEO of Toyota’s North America region.
Ask him why and, odds are, he’d tell you about his dad — also named Jim.
“My father always told me to follow my North Star and to stay true to my core values,” said Lentz in an interview with Plano Profile in 2018.
By following his North Star, Lentz not only built a career, he bolstered a company. And when he announced to team members last Wednesday that he would be retiring as TMNA’s CEO on April 1, 2020, an audible gasp from the crowd could be heard and he received a standing ovation from hundreds of team members.
Don’t be surprised by the standing ovation. In those seven years as CEO, Lentz has built a legacy that will surely stand the test of time. Most importantly, he consolidated the company’s North American operations and is overseeing Toyota’s transition into a mobility company. Along the way, his tenure resulted in some of the most robust sales in TMNA’s 62-year history.
Odds are, much of the above wouldn’t have happened if Lentz hadn’t heeded his father’s advice. Following his North Star was the key.
Happy Family -- TMNA CEO Jim Lentz, his wife, Barbara, and their sons early in his career.
The Early Years
After earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing and economics and an MBA in finance at the University of Denver, Lentz signed on as a management trainee with Ford in 1978. Soon, he was making the rounds to 235 dealerships in seven mostly Western states.
“I’d leave home at 8 a.m. on Monday morning, and my nearest dealer in Wyoming was six hours away. I would be back about 8 p.m. on Friday,” he said.
Weary of that grind, Lentz heard Toyota Motor Sales’ (TMS) Portland Region was looking for a merchandising manager, a job that involved far less travel. So, in 1982, he left the well-established domestic make for the upstart Japanese importer, a bit of a gamble with his wife, Barbara, and infant son to support.
Lentz thrived in Portland, with promotions to regional district manager in 1983 and field operations manager in 1985. But he faced a major turning point in December 1987, when his manager called a team meeting to discuss the monthly sales results.
“He pulled me aside and said I was too soft on people,” said Lentz. “He wanted me to change my style and to motivate people with an iron fist. I told him I had to be who I was and I couldn’t change that, nor would I commit to his demand. He gave me two weeks to find another job, which I did at our corporate headquarters in California. It was a demotion and a pay cut. But, in the end, I made the right choice.”
With the lessons of that initial setback in hand, Lentz made steady progress through Toyota’s sales and marketing ranks. That included positions like field training manager, sales administration manager and truck sales team member at the corporate office as well as stints as general manager of the Los Angeles Region and San Francisco Region and vice president of Marketing Services at Central Atlantic Toyota.
In 2001, Lentz was named vice president of Scion, setting the stage for the initial launch of a new line of vehicles designed for the next generation of car buyers. That success led to promotions to vice president of Marketing in 2002, group vice president of Marketing in 2004 and group vice president of the Toyota Division in 2005.
He ascended to president of TMS in 2007. On April 1, 2012, Lentz was made a senior managing officer of Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) and the first American to be named chief executive officer of TMS.
Always Arriving in Style -- TMNA CEO Jim Lentz steps out of an iRoad at the groundbreaking for the company's new North American headquarters in Plano, Texas.
The biggest undertaking of his career, however, was yet to come. In 2013, Lentz began a conversation with TMC President Akio Toyoda about the state of the organization.
“Akio asked me, ‘What is the one thing you need to change to sustain your business into the future?’” said Lentz. “I thought he meant the next 3-5 years, but he actually meant for the next 50 years.”
In 2014, Lentz responded by announcing that sales, marketing, manufacturing and R&D operations would consolidate under the banner of Toyota Motor North America. Further, the new entity would establish its headquarters in Plano, Texas.
Lentz’s bold move aimed to reinvigorate the company and set it on a course toward a new future.
Lentz referred to what became known as One Toyota as the “most daring achievement” of his remarkable career. It gave birth to an organization more adept at reacting to rapid change. That’s exactly what was needed at the end of Lentz’s run, as Toyota began to transform itself from a car company into a mobility company.
“Today, the business means private car ownership,” Lentz said in 2015. “Tomorrow, it might be ride-sharing or even robots to help wounded veterans coming back home. It’s all about mobility, and we have to find a way to make a business out of it.”
True to His Core
Amid the many changes, 70-hour work weeks and 6,500-mile trips to Japan, Lentz always remained true to his low-key management style.
“I never speak first when I’m sitting around a table with my managers,” he said in 2015. “Because if I do, I know they will tell me what I want to hear. My job is to stimulate the organization and come up with the best decision I can.”
When Lentz was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2014, he shared this insight with a black-tie gathering of the industry’s best and brightest:
“People often ask me, ‘What’s the secret to bouncing back from challenging times?’ And I tell them what I learned very early in my career: stay flexible and always, always, take care of your customers.”
And in 2016, he revealed, “I love thinking about the future. I am one or two steps removed now from day-to-day operations. And I miss that. But at the same time, it allows me to think about where we should be four to five years from now. Obviously, the idea of One Toyota is part of that. But another part of it is watching people develop and progress in the company, knowing that’s the bench of future leaders, so that we continue with this company that develops people from within — so we don’t have to go outside necessarily. To me, that’s fun.”
Lentz is having fun now as he works with incoming CEO Tetsuo Ogawa – a 35-year Toyota team member – on the transition at the end of the fiscal year.
But what will Lentz do on his first day of retirement? He says he’ll play golf and visit family. But hopefully, he’ll take one last long, deserved look back on his career. He’ll see that kid driving a rusted out Corvair who ascended to CEO of an automotive company that’s become part of the fabric of America’s car culture. He’ll see decisions that made life better for thousands of coworkers and millions of customers. He’ll see a career that, above all, has truly mattered.