June 30, 2009

How to Beat the NEXT Recession

[My new column on Harvard Business Online]

We're in the midst of the worst decline in auto sales history — yet Toyota can't make the newest model of its hybrid gas-electric Prius fast enough. According to the New York Times, the world's largest automaker has received 80,000 pre-orders already, one-fifth of the company's Prius sales goal for the year. On the heels of the depressing GM and Chrysler bankruptcies and layoffs, Toyota has instituted overtime production in its Tsutsumi plant in Japan.

This news comes on the heels of one of Honda's latest entries in the hybrid market, the significantly revamped Insight, becoming the bestselling car in Japan in April — not the bestselling hybrid, but the bestselling vehicle — racking up over 10,000 sales at $19,000 a pop.

The era of niche eco-vehicles is over. With Toyota and Honda experiencing their first losses in decades, the vast success of the green parts of their product portfolios must be very welcome — a life boat in troubled times.

It's educational to think for a minute about when the foundations of these successes were built. Toyota started development on the first generation of Prius, not one, but two recessions ago. Sixteen years ago, on the heels of the early 90s downturn, Toyota started designing what it thought would fit the demands of the 21st Century. Early in the process — and even though oil was only $17 per barrel — the team decided that a critical focus should be "environment." And while I can't say exactly when Honda decided to completely retool their earlier Insight model, how long after the early 2000s recession could it possibly have been?

[See the rest here]

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