March 7 (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp named an engineer to head its North American operations and promoted Jim Lentz, who helped orchestrate the Japanese automaker's response to a string of safety recalls that began in late 2009.
The company said on Wednesday that it had appointed Shigeki Terashi, 57, currently head of its U.S. engineering and manufacturing operations, as president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor North America Inc.
Terashi replaces Yoshi Inaba, 66, who will remain on the executive committee and retain his position as chairman of the subsidiary Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.
Lentz, 56, will be president and chief executive officer of the U.S. sales unit, making him one of the highest-ranking American executives at the company.
The moves will take effect April 1, Toyota said in a statement.
From 2009 to 2011, Toyota recalled 11.5 million vehicles worldwide due to complaints of unintended acceleration linked to defective floor mats, gas pedals and related problems.
Lentz and Inaba both played key roles in handling Toyota's response to its safety crisis, which undermined sales and hurt its brand. Both testified in front of U.S. lawmakers and apologized for Toyota's errors during a decade of rapid global growth.
In a particularly damaging 2009 memo to Inaba, Toyota's Washington staff lauded the company's ability to limit a 2007 recall of floor mats. This saved Toyota $100 million, said the memo, which surfaced during the hearings.
Inaba said he did not remember the memo and that it did not represent the automaker's guiding principles and beliefs. Both he and Toyota President Akio Toyoda said they were unaware of key pieces of information that might have helped the company respond faster to safety concerns.
Since then, Toyota has changed its approach to safety by slowing vehicle development and giving more power to regional units so they can handle customer complaints quickly.
Lentz's appointment is in keeping with Toyota's efforts to develop and promote local talent and "shows confidence in U.S. operations," said company spokesman Steve Curtis.
Terashi, who will retain his current position as president of Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing in North America, joined the company in 1980 in the body engineering design division and began by working on the Camry mid-sized car.
Before assuming his current position, Terashi led the Toyota Technical Center and oversaw the development and launch of the Venza crossover vehicle, Sienna minivan and other products in North America.