Toyota chairman, Ford CEO meet

From Reuters

The chairman of Toyota Motor Corp. has met with the chief executive of Ford Motor Co., but they did not discuss the possibility of forming any alliance, Japan's top automaker confirmed today.

"It was just a get-acquainted meeting," Toyota spokesman Tomomi Imai said, adding that the company's executives routinely meet with counterparts at other automakers.

Japanese business daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun had reported Tuesday that Ford CEO Alan Mulally and Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho met last week in Tokyo as the first step in potential partnership talks.

The meeting was attended by Ford Executive Vice President Mark Fields, who is in charge of restructuring the automaker's money-losing North American operations, the newspaper said. Mulally may visit Japan again in January to meet with Toyota executives, the report said.

The newspaper cited unnamed sources familiar with the talks as saying Ford was interested in Toyota's hybrid and fuel-cell technologies as well as its work in reducing manufacturing and parts procurement costs.

"I can't confirm or deny the report other than to say that we have discussions with participants in our industry all the time," Ford spokesman Oscar Suris said.

Ford shares rose 7 cents to $7.49.

The report also said Toyota could be considering a partnership as a way to ease potential friction with the U.S. auto industry at a time when its own growth has been surging.

Analysts were skeptical that Toyota and Ford would agree to an outright merger or a substantial joint investment given the diverging paths for the two automakers.

Toyota is poised to overtake General Motors Corp. as the world's largest automaker in terms of production next year, and many analysts expect that it will also unseat Ford as No. 2 in the U.S. as soon as next year.

While Toyota's U.S. sales have jumped almost 13% this year, Ford's sales have fallen almost 8%, according to monthly sales data.

Ford's Mulally, who took over as CEO in October with a mandate to turn the struggling company around, has spoken repeatedly about his admiration for Toyota, a company he has said he studied closely as a manufacturing executive at Boeing Co.

Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford licenses Toyota's market-leading hybrid engine technology for the hybrid versions of its Escape and Mariner sport utility vehicles.

Ford, which has relied heavily on its lineup of pickup trucks and SUVs, would stand to gain from a cooperative partnership with Toyota if it focused on fuel economy and other technology seen as environmentally friendly, said analyst Jesse Toprak of Santa Monica-based auto information provider

The possible partnership is the latest in a series that have captured headlines for the global auto industry in recent months.

GM declined to enter an alliance with Renault and Nissan Motor Co. in early October after three months of negotiation, sparking speculation that the French-Japanese group could turn to Ford to secure a North American partner.

Carlos Ghosn, who heads Renault and Nissan, said last month that he was open to adding a U.S. automaker to form a three-way alliance but that the timing was not right for Nissan.

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