Executive Insider: Andrew Gilleland

Toyota’s VP of Sales Operations talks about his leadership style and, of course, sales

May 21, 2018

Andrew Gilleland has had a quite a ride at Toyota. His resume includes years of working in regional offices, a turn as the vice president of Scion, and executive roles in Lexus and, now, the vice president of sales operations for the Toyota division.
 
In his current role Gilleland oversees all of Toyota’s regional operations. That means all 700 team members in Toyota’s 10 Regions report up to him.
 
Moreover, Gilleland’s ascent through the company has been aided by his unique personality. In Torrance, he used to keep an autographed photo of famed professional wrestler Ric Flair in his office, and his recently razed sideburns became an almost iconic personification of his quirkiness. There’s plenty about Gilleland that doesn’t fit the executive stereotype. But with his personality, he brings a keen eye for leadership, an ability to disarm people and a solid business sense build on 26 years of experience with Toyota.
 
If you want to read more, keep scrolling.
 
If you want to know Gilleland’s Top 5 pro wrestlers of the 1980s (and pick up some leadership tips), then watch the video here.
 
Driver’s Seat: You’ve had a lot of success as a leader in this company. Are there certain approaches to get people out of their shells?
 
Andrew Gilleland: It starts with understanding what’s important to people and creating open communication. Without communication, we have breakdowns. So, the first thing I try to do is create an environment where people feel comfortable talking. But that takes a lot of work. As a leader, you can’t just stand up there and say, “We’re gonna have this open, collaborative environment where everyone is respected.” As leaders, if you don’t demonstrate that behavior in an authentic way, I think employees see right through that, and you’ll never get the best out of your team. Also, as a leader, you have to put other’s success ahead of you own. The old adage “You cannot ask somebody to do something you would not or have not done yourself” is important to me. You have to lead by example.
 
Outside of sales, what makes you look good to your bosses?
 
I think you have to ask Jack (Hollis, group vice president and general manager, Toyota Brand) that. Really, I’m a sales guy. So, I’m gonna tell you it’s sales. But also, success for me comes in a couple different formats. If we are working today to get our goals done and, at the same time, looking toward the future, I think that creates success long term, which is how this business is run. Getting results, meeting goals and objectives all matter in our organization.
 
Also, one of the great things about Toyota is its ability to be strategic and flexible. Whatever the future looks like, whatever that consumer demand is, we’ll be there. I think that was Akio Toyoda’s message behind Start Your Impossible. The things we thought were impossible really are possible. We used to be a loom company. So, if the Toyoda family had not thought possible what was impossible, we wouldn’t be in the place we’re at today. The future would have been very different than what we have today. I always keep that in the back of my mind.
 
You oversee our Regions and field team members. Are there any not-so-obvious problems that dealers have that we need to deal with?
 
I think for the field folks, one of the big things, and a lot has changed since I was a field traveler, is how consumers are purchasing products. The introduction of the digital shopping experience is something we’re very focused on. In 1992, when I started with the company, there wasn’t an internet. The information really all resided with the dealer in terms of product and pricing. Fast forward 26 years and the balance of information is now with the consumer. So, we need to develop processes inside of our dealerships that recognize and leverage that. This information is not going away. Think about it as transparency that’s enabled by technology. If you use that as an overarching strategy to develop your retail processes in the store, you’re probably going to come up with a customer-centric retail process.
 
Building Experience -- Gilleland has taken on plenty of challenges during his time at Toyota, including a turn as the vice president of Scion, where he unveiled the C-HR Concept at the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show. 

What’s the biggest challenge in your job right now?
 
It’s sales, it’s the customer experience. I think being strategic and looking toward the future and trying to live Akio’s Start Your Impossible mantra is really something I spend quite a bit of time on. I think in the next 10-15 years, business will be very similar to what it is today. We’ll have internal combustion engines, we’ll have 20-30 million UIO that we’ll have to service. I think technology will play a larger role in it. So, you have to constantly balance our current realties while thinking about a future Toyota.
 
I know, but for those who don’t, what is UIO?
 
UIO means Units in Operation. The number of vehicles Toyota has on the road.
 
I have to confess, I didn’t actually know that.
 
You just said that you did.
 
I was lying. I didn’t want you to think less of me.
 
Yeah, one of the great things about One Toyota is that, hopefully, everybody’s comfortable asking questions. I just worked in the One Toyota Competitive group -- that was this collaborative group of becoming more competitive in North America. There were people from finance, production, sales and marketing. I learned more in eight months than I’ve learned in 10 years before that because I was collaborating with people from the production side. And I spent a lot of time saying, “What is that acronym?”
 
What is our sales forecast?
 
Escalation of interest rates by the Fed over the next 10 months will have an impact on the overall size of the industry. So, we were at 17 million plus industry sales. I think we’re going to be in that area this year, maybe a little less. But the good thing, if you look at Toyota’s performance historically, when the market goes down, we tend to gain market share. So that bodes well for us. We should have a fairly good year. Toyota and Lexus plan to sell 2.146 million non-fleet vehicles in 2018. I do think we’re gonna have some challenges around the Fed raising interest rates and consumer demand. But we typically do much better than other manufacturers in a shrinking industry.
 
A few years ago, gas was $4-5 per gallon. Now it’s $2 a gallon. Demand for trucks and SUVs went up as a result. Now we’re scrambling to build more trucks and SUVs, but gas prices can change really quickly, right? How do we make sure we’re not caught off guard?
 
You have to be flexible, and that’s one of the things this company is. It didn’t take us six years to fix the mix, but it wasn’t overnight. You have to realize on a long-term trend, gas prices are going to continue to elevate. It’s a limited commodity. I’ve been in the business 26 years and I’ve heard “peak oil” multiple times. The reality is, we get better and better at not only the efficiency of gas engines, but the process by which we get oil out of the ground. As we grow technology, the efficiencies get better and better. We are a global leader in hybrids. That leadership will remain a key area of focus and a competitive advantage for Toyota as consumers ask for light trucks and fuel economy. That’s a winning formula to grow sales and market share for us. So, I don’t know that gas prices are as big an influence as actual consumers desires, they don’t have to sacrifice fuel economy to get utility any longer.
 
Along those lines, we’re moving from body-on-frame products – so Lexus GX and 4Runner are body-on-frame – and we’re going to more unibody. With unibody, you get the feel of driving a car. So, when you talk to people and ask them what they want in a truck, they say they want something that drives great, gets good fuel economy and has a lot of utility. Well, these unibody products like RAV4 or Highlander fit the bill better than in the past, where we just had body-on-frame. Gas prices are part of it, but really, as I said, it’s about what consumers want today. And what they will want that they don’t even know they want yet? That’s the trick.
 
Do you know what they don’t know they want yet?
 
No, I would’ve created Amazon if I could see the future. But I do think you can look at trends and figure out unibody SUVs for a lot of different reasons. That seems to be the future that I see in North America.
 
Are we just at the mercy of the market?
 
Everyone is. But we have this really wide portfolio of products. We have plants that can shift production to meet demand. That’s our competitive advantage in the marketplace: our lean manufacturing. When I walk into the plant and see a steel roll, and then I walk to the end of it and see a finished car, it’s pretty amazing what we’re able to do, especially given the scale. We’re not making a pen, we’re making a $25,000 durable good. To watch us do that process and also watch market demand is something that I always am amazed by.
 
By Dan Nied
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