"What other photos do you need?" Jim Press asked us congenially as our photographer finished his work in the hallway by the Chrysler cafeteria. "Do you want a picture of me in my Speedo, doing something else?" It was a great, sly joke, referring to A USA Today photo of press taken underwater as he swam laps, which he does almost every day. sometimes twice a day.
"That was the story of the year," I suggested, remembering the rather shocking picture of the nearly naked chief U.S. executive of Toyota swimming toward the camera in goggles with big air bubbles coming out of his nose.
"That was a sad story," he shot back.
"Rule number one: the head of a car company should never appear in a national newspaper in a Speedo," I joked, but upon reflection, maybe not joking.
"I happen to agree with that," he deadpanned. "I've been doing everything I can to destroy every piece of evidence that it exists."
This picture you see of him laughing? This isn't typical. Press has more of a dry, Steven Wright sort of humor ("I got a garage door opener. It can't close. Just open.") that tends to be self-deprecating, can poke a little, and throws you off-guard, delivered with a sad-eyed, Huckleberry Hound demeanor. His shoulders hunch a bit, his hands are quiet, his voice is soft, always polite. People around him are forced to settle down to listen to him. And when he talks, it's never about himself.
Back in 2005, we traveled to California to give Press an All-Star award for building Toyota, over his four decades there, into the third-largest car company in the United States, accounting for half of Toyota's global profits. He accepted his award in a roomful of top executives, all of us standing, coffees in hand. There was no microphone. He acknowledged the team effort, told them to look at the bull's-eyes on each other's backs, and sent everyone back to work. Then he gave us a tour of the Toyota "campus" in his Tacoma pickup, after relocating his dirty gym clothes to the back seat.
In 2006, Press became the first American president of Toyota Motor North America, and he topped that honor last April when he became the first non-Japanese person to be appointed to the Toyota board. He may also be its last - five months later, Chrysler's new vice chairman and co-president was house-hunting in Michigan.
We roll the tape.
"Many things we need to ask you, Jim."
"There's so much I don't know," he responds, mournfully. "In fact, I don't know anything! I've only been here a week."
This is how you thank Toyota for putting you on the board?
Wow. Uh. I was there for a long time. I owe everything I am to Toyota. I was very happy. I left because I'd arrived at a point many people might envy, being able to manage the overall process instead of the operations. It's not my cup of tea. I like to be on the showroom floor, see the people and the candy. I like to go out into the real world. That's just who I am. People who get in higher positions have about ten percent of the information and make about ninety percent of the decisions. I like to be on the ninety-percent-information side.
No, the timing wasn't perfect. At Toyota, I was in the sunset of my career. There's no strict mandatory retirement age at Toyota, but I wasn't going to be there ten or fifteen more years. This is the sunrise.
How Japanese are you now?
It isn't even Japanese. One of the strengths of Toyota is that it's not a culture dictated by any country of origin; it's more a culture of the company. The strengths of those cultural issues may be stronger in America than they are in Japan, so you're sort of this hybrid.
How did the call come?
A mutual acquaintance asked if I had some interest in getting to know the folks at Cerberus. I had intended to introduce myself. We were both in New York, so I thought if we needed to do things in the future in the community or in terms of lobbying and so on, then we could do it together. I had no real interest in leaving Toyota at that time.
I was intrigued by the long-term perspective that they were taking. Steve Feinberg made the point about creating an opportunity for a great American icon, for a United States-based auto company to take on the world and show that we can do it. That really is a big part of his motivation. As I learned more over time, my interest changed to being part of the company.