Chrysler and other U.S. car makers ignored the market but not McCurry. He met with Mitsubishi who built quality small cars and who was anxious to come to the U.S.
But Mitsubishi couldn’t come because they had no U.S. dealership network to sell and service their cars. McCurry had a solution. He cut a deal giving Dodge dealers exclusive U.S. rights to Mitsubishi small cars and in 1971, introduced the Mitsubishi built Dodge Colt.
This gave Chrysler quality small cars to sell without having to spend a fortune and years to design and produce them. This turned out to be a financial bonanza for Chrysler, who also invested in Mitsubishi, eventually owning 37% of the Japanese company. Only in 2005 did DaimlerChrysler sell the last of those shares.
But a serious problem developed between Chrysler and McCurry. Instead of offering top quality, Chrysler and the other U.S. car companies were often building shoddy products. He felt this was a colossal mistake but no matter how hard he tried, he could not change their minds.
Then one day in 1978, the brakes failed on his wife Jane’s Plymouth Volare and she almost drove her car into a lake. That was the last straw. He quit his top job and left behind his big salary.
Looking for a car company that valued quality as he did, McCurry found it in Toyota. They hired him to head their U.S. sales division along with Japanese executive Yukiyasu Togo.
Just as he had done with Chrysler, McCurry built extensive personal relationships among his dealers and he often showed up unannounced to inspect dealerships to ensure they were well run and to confirm that customers were pleased. And he listened and he heard new ideas.
Whether at Chrysler or Toyota, many of his best ideas came from customers like you and me who told him what they would buy and dealers who told him what they could sell if it was available. And he got ideas from employees because they knew he would listen and he had the courage to act on them.
McCurry persuaded Toyota to phase out their boxy Japanese style cars and join him in creating new designs for the American market. With him and his team, they developed the Camry sedan, which became the best selling car in the U.S.
And despite Detroit’s skepticism that a small-car maker like Toyota could ever become successful building a high-end luxury car line for the American market, he convinced Toyota to try it.
You’ve probably heard of what McCurry helped them create, the Lexus luxury line. It became a tremendous success, highly respected and copied in Detroit and by car makers everywhere.
In 1993, when McCurry retired as vice chairman of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., they introduced another of his innovations, the small Toyota pickup truck, yet another winner.
What can we learn from Bob McCurry?
1) Be a good listener. Even as you read this newsletter, don’t you have ideas that could make a product or a process better if only others would listen to you.
2) Have the courage to act. The world has plenty of great ideas, as the Silicon Valley has shown us. It needs more people like McCurry brave enough to act on them.
3) Make quality the foundation of your success. As we saw in the 1980’s when U.S. car makers surrendered their leadership to foreign manufacturers, quality really should have been what Ford used to call “Job One.”
4) Keep an open mind. What sounds strange today may become commonplace tomorrow. In the mid-1980’s, the cell phone was an odd concept, as was the Internet 10-years later. And Polaroid laughed off digital cameras until the company wound up in bankruptcy.
At the age of 83, Bob McCurry recently passed away just as Toyota introduced yet another of his ideas. In their San Antonio, TX factory the large heavy-duty 2007 Tundra pickup trucks went into production.