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Toyota shareholders OK founder's grandson as head

TOYOTA, Japan -- Toyota shareholders approved the appointment of the company founder's grandson Akio Toyoda as new president Tuesday, hoping that reaching back to the automaker's family roots will help steer the manufacturer out of its worst ever crisis.

More than 3,300 shareholders packing a hall at Toyota Motor Corp. headquarters -- a record attendance -- showed their approval by applause for the selection of 29 new directors, mostly company executives and directors, including Toyoda.

Toyoda faces the daunting task of reviving the world's largest automaker, which lost 436.9 billion yen ($4.6 billion) during the fiscal year ended March, its worst loss since it was founded in 1937. The company expects an even larger loss this year.

Toyoda, 53, formally became president at a directors' meeting later in the day, the company said in a statement. He replaces Katsuaki Watanabe, who presided over the shareholders' meeting in this central Japanese city that shares its name with the corporation. Reporters saw the proceedings live on a TV monitor at Toyota headquarters.

Toyoda, the grandson of founder Kiichiro Toyoda and the son of Shoichiro Toyoda, a former president, spoke only once in the meeting, in his role as executive vice president overseeing Japan sales.

He responded to the worries of a shareholder about the delay in Prius hybrid deliveries because production hasn't kept up with booming demand, with deliveries not arriving until about November.

"We are very sorry to make customers wait," he told shareholders, standing at the corner of the stage with other executives. He assured shareholders everything was being done to boost production.

(The founder's family name is spelled with a "d," but the company name was changed to Toyota because that was considered luckier.)

Many Japanese companies, including conservative ones like Toyota, don't allow incoming chief executives to speak up too much because of protocol until their taking helm becomes official.

Watanabe, the current president, did almost all the talking at the two-hour shareholders meeting, although other executives in charge of technology and production methods answered some investor queries.

Watanabe had led Toyota since 2005 on an aggressive, and until recently a largely successful, growth track.

The company, which makes the Camry sedan and Lexus luxury line, has been hit hard by the global slump as buyers hold off from buying cars, particularly in the U.S., Europe and its home market of Japan.

Watanabe apologized to shareholders for the red ink Toyota had racked up recently, and promised to carry out cost cuts. He also said Toyota will stay nimble to develop products that will appeal to consumer tastes, including green cars.

The only bright spot in Toyota's performance lately has been the popularity of the third-generation Prius hybrid, partly due to government incentives on green vehicles. Even then, analysts say its booming sales are biting into sales of other models.

Hopes were high among shareholders for leadership from a Toyoda -- a name that holds a mystique in this city that depends on the company and its related businesses for thousands of jobs.

"He can bring people together," said stockholder Yuzo Watanabe, 59, who works for an auto parts-maker and owns 1,000 Toyota shares.

Like many other shareholders, he was sympathetic, pointing out that all manufacturers had been battered by the downturn and the financial crisis, and so the bad results weren't all Toyota's fault.

Toyoda clearly faces an enormous challenge to turn around the company that his grandfather founded more than 60 years ago. It forecasts a net loss of 550 billion yen ($5.8 billion) for the year through March 2010.

In a news conference in January when his appointment was first announced, Toyoda has promised a back-to-basics approach at Toyota, valuing rank-and-file and consumer needs. He has another news conference set for Thursday in Tokyo, where he may disclose more details of his turnaround plan.

In an indirect reference to Toyoda's rise, Watanabe said the Toyoda family has always been devoted to manufacturing with "a philosophy, passion, ideas and hard work" that forms "Toyota's DNA."

"That needs to continue," he said. "The Toyota Way will provide that force that will bring the whole Toyota group together."