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Toyota (NYSE: TM) is an automobile manufacturer based in Aichi, Nagoya, and Toyko, Japan, and founded in 1937. It builds, exports, and sells cars and other motor vehicles worldwide. Fujio Cho is Toyota's current chairman; Katsuaki Watanabe is its president; and Shoichiro Toyoda is its honorary chairman.

Company Description

"Fertile rice paddies." That's the direct translation of Toyoda, the surname of Toyota's founding family, and perhaps an odd description of a company that began with the world's first automated loom, and found its destiny in the automobile. While his father Sakichi, the company's founder, focused on weaving, son Kiichiro became fascinated with cars. After traveling to the U.S. and Europe in 1929 to research their manufacture, Kiichiro started a motor vehicle division within the company. In 1936, the first Toyota vehicles were announced; the company changed its name slightly because "Toyota" takes eight brushtrokes to write -- a lucky number -- and because even in Japan in 1936, no one wanted to associate cars with rice paddies, however fertile they might be.

In 1957, the company founded sales offices in the United States and Brazil, and began exporting its first cars for foreign markets. The Jeep-like Land Cruiser managed to sustain Toyota's initially rocky sales in the U.S.; not until the Toyota Crown rolled across the Pacific (not literally, of course) in 1965 did Toyota's sales here truly begin to pick up. In 1968, the company introduced a model whose name may possibly sound familiar: the Corolla.

By that point, Toyota had passed Volkswagen as the nation's leading importer of cars. It continued to gain sales through the gas-starved 1970s with small, fuel-efficient, reasonably high-quality offerings. In 1986, Toyota established its first U.S. manufacturing plant, initially as a joint venture with General Motors; today, the company operates 11 plants here.

Ford distinguished itself with superior manufacturing processes; General Motors with innovative branding and design efforts; and Toyota grew successful via a similar pioneering approach to its corporate culture, which prizes long-term strategies, efficient manufacturing, and a focus on function and quality. U.S. carmakers have striven to emulate this process, resulting in various degrees of success and inspiring at least one 1980s Michael Keaton movie rapidly and mercifully fading from public memory.

Today, Toyota is the world's No. 2 automaker, and a constant and growing threat to top dog GM. It built more than 8.5 million motor vehicles in 2007, more than 7.2 million of which were cars (surpassing GM in that department by nearly 1 million cars). It ranked fifth in the 2008 Fortune Global 500 survey of the world's largest companies, with more than $230 billion in sales and roughly $15 billion in profits. Though cars are its bread and butter, the company has also ventured into robotics -- and yes, it's still making automatic looms, too. Recently, it's even made investments in startups devoted to agricultural biotechnology. "Fertile rice paddies," indeed.

Brands and Divisions

In addition to its flagship Toyota brand, the company also offers the high-end Lexus line of cars, launched in 1989, and the boxy-but-hip, youth-oriented Scion brand, which debuted in 2003.

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