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Toyota's New U.S. Boss: 'Time to Get Close to The Customer'

The new man in charge of Toyota North America, Yoshi Inaba, is focused on getting the Japanese auto maker back on track in the states by making decisions faster and getting closer to the customer.

Inaba, who was a key leader as Toyota picked up U.S. market share in the mid to late 90's, sees signs in the market Toyota could be profitable next year.

The Japanese auto maker is currently not profitable in the U.S.

Inaba is working on assessing Toyota's capacity in the U.S. and re-planning the best use of its plants. That includes deciding the fate of the NUMMI plant in California Toyota operated in partnership with GM. Since GM dropped its stake in NUMMI during bankruptcy, Toyota is analyzing if it should keep the plant open or close it all together. Inaba expects a decision on NUMMI relatively soon, but would not give a time line.

So why has Toyota lost its way in the U.S.?

Talking for an hour with a dozen reporters, Inaba admitted Toyota became complacent and too many decisions were made at the corporate headquarters in Japan, instead at the U.S. offices in California and New York. Inaba, along with new CEO Akio Toyoda, plans to change that by making decisions here in the states and doing it faster.

And he has his work cut out for him. This year, Toyota sales are down 37.5% and the company has slipped from #2 in the U.S. To #3.

Inaba expects gas prices to continue moving higher, but is cautiously optimistic sales will start to rebound in the next year. In fact, his personal opinion is the U.S. auto industry annual sales rate could snap back to 12-13 million units in the next year. It's currently running between 9.5 and 10 million. If he's right, it will go a long ways in Toyota determining what it will do with a new plant in Mississippi it has built, but never used.

Toyota once talked about building the Prius in the new Mississippi plant. But the weak economy, plummeting auto sales, and questions of how to supply Prius parts for assembly have all kept the auto maker from building its popular hybrid here in the states.

Finally, Inaba is skeptical we will see electric cars sold in mass numbers any time soon. He says he has seen the breakthrough in battery technology needed to support mass production and sales of electric models.

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