Executive Insider: Steve St. Angelo

The Chief Executive of Toyota's Latin America and Caribbean region talks career, leadership and how Akio Toyoda humbled him.

December 04, 2018

As far as internal corporate communications goes, Steve St. Angelo, the CEO of Toyota’s Latin America and Caribbean region, is a pretty big get.
It’s not every day you get to sit down with the guy who runs an entire 39-country region and ask him how he does that. Further, St. Angelo’s resume includes a long career at General Motors, a turn as the chairman of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky and as Toyota Motor North America’s first chief quality officer.
As if that’s not enough, St. Angelo spent his 20s playing pickup hockey with Detroit Red Wings hall of famers, and, oh yeah, he knows the Pope. For more on those two things, watch the video above. For everything else, read below. 
Driver’s Seat: You’re based in Brazil, running a 39-country region for the company. That's probably a lot of hours.
Steve St. Angelo: Yeah, people don't realize there's 39 countries in our region. We're not nearly as big as North America in sales, but we’re dealing with 39 economies, 39 presidents, 39 policies that can change overnight. You need to stay abreast of what's going on continuously. It's almost like playing chess, except you have 39 chess boards going at the same time and you're trying to watch all the different moves in the different countries and preparing a strategy on how to make your next move to be successful. You need to be on top of your game or you'll fall so far behind and you can't get out of the mud.
One thing that's interesting, you're not fluent in Portuguese or Spanish, correct?
Neither. Not so good in English either, but I try my best.
Join the club. How does that work for you?
I spend a lot of time with the team members, and they can't speak any English, but for some reason we seem to be able to communicate. I think it's more by your heart, your actions. It hasn't been a problem for me. If I could do anything over, I would learn a language, but I never dreamt I'd be here for six years. The seventh year is coming up quickly.
When I first took this assignment, Akio Toyoda told me, "Three years max, maybe two years we'll bring you back." Well, I took some Portuguese lessons, then I start traveling like a crazy man and I'm in a Spanish speaking country, I'm in a Japanese speaking country, and when I go back to my Portuguese I was all confused. The teacher would scold me. I said, " You know, I only have a couple years left, maybe I'll just kind of skate and just focus on the job." But then came year four, then five, then six, and who knows what's coming up next. I wish I would have learned the language, but it hasn't been a big problem for me.
Tell us about your career, because it's really interesting.
When you think of the American dream I think I'm a pretty good example of that. I've been very fortunate. I started at 17, working in the cafeteria in a plant in downtown Detroit called Fisher Body. They made Cadillac. I ended up working on the production line at 18 and, because I was young, I had to work second shift. During the day I went to university and received my engineering degree and then, finally, my masters degree.
I worked up the ladder, job by job. I went from team member to team leader to group leader, then I became an engineer, a senior engineer, and then an engineering manager. Then my big break came when I worked at (Toyota and General Motors’ shared plant) NUMMI, the first time in 1995, then I returned to GM in 2001 through 2003 as a vice president of manufacturing. That allowed me to learn the Toyota Production System (TPS) much deeper and it allowed me to learn the Toyota way of thinking. I met some wonderful people on that assignment, including Akio Toyoda. After that assignment, I went to Mexico. Worked a couple years in Mexico City and then I came to Toyota in 2005 and became the president in 2006 of TMMK.
My last job in North America, I was the executive vice president for the operations side. (Current TMNA CEO) Jim Lentz had the sales side. Then in 2013 I went to South America and the Caribbean and became the CEO of the region and Jim took North America.

What made you want to make the switch from GM to Toyota?
When I got the call in 2004, I didn't jump on it. I had a wonderful career. But I wanted to do something different. I thought working for Toyota would be a nice change. My personality and values were more in line with Toyota. I really, really liked TPS. I made my decision to change companies, basically same career, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
You said you took South America, Jim took North America. How did that decision get made?
I think the big guy made a decision. It wasn't myself or Jim deciding. It was at that time where Akio and his team divided up the world into different regions to be closer to the customers. I think part of this was because of the reflection we had from the recalls. He wanted a very strong voice to represent the customers in the region. Prior to being a region, these countries were by themselves, and they were all negotiating individually with TMC the types of vehicles they wanted, the quantity of vehicles, the pricing of the vehicles, and everything else.
It's paying off. In 2013, before we became a region, our market share was 5 percent. Today it's 10 percent. Our customer satisfaction, customer sales satisfaction, customer service satisfaction are the best of all our competitors. We're getting closer to the customer, we're providing better service, and I don't think this would have happened if we didn't have a regional management.
You were our first North American chief quality officer, on the heels of the recall crisis?
Yep. When I met Akio for the first time after getting the job, I said, "Okay, what do you want me to do? What do you expect out of me?" He says, "Three things: Number one, never, never lie, even if it hurts Toyota. Number two, don't blame anyone for our problems. Don't blame the journalist, don't blame the media, don't blame the government, don't blame the customers. And finally, always put the customers' safety first."

I walked away thinking, "Wow, what a great company to work for. They really believe in putting customer safety first and having that level of integrity." That was one thing I learned. I was very honored and privileged to work for such a great company.

There's a lot of people who put in a lot of time, put in a lot of work, and only get so far. Now, by all accounts, you’re at the top of your profession. Why do you think you were able to do that?

You need to do things that are impossible. This slogan "Start Your Impossible," I've lived that my whole life. People tell me I can't do it, I go, "Wow, this sounds like a challenge for me."
Always try to leave your handprint somewhere. As in: if Steve St. Angelo wasn't here this wouldn't have happened. Things will come naturally, but there's no magic behind it. It's making a difference in the company, making a difference in people’s lives, making the world a better place because you're in this job. I think that's what it's about.
Tell me about your family.
I have two daughters, I have four grandkids. Two of the grandkids play hockey now and they live in Florida and I have one dog and my wife.
And your wife has no problem moving around like you do?
We've relocated probably 12 times in my career. She's never once complained and, of course, she spends most of her time in the United States because I travel so much. She'd be home by herself in Brazil, so we decided it's best for her to stay back and take care of the grandkids and my two daughters. But, she's never complained once and she's very supportive of my career. She's very supportive of Toyota and you know, it's worked out pretty good. Forty years is a long time.
By Dan Nied

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