As we entered the meeting room, two well-dressed gentlemen warmly welcomed us and offered us seats at a neat table. We were at the Erbil office of Toyota Iraq Company, the exclusive distributor of Japanese brands (Toyota, Lexus and Hino). In the very first moments, I noticed a kakemono hanging on the wall that read: “Benefit for self and others, private and public interests are one and the same.” The hosts then offered us matcha in chawan – powdered green tea in porcelain bowls – a powerful symbol of Japanese hospitality. I was there to interview Yutaka Ezaki, CEO of Toyota Iraq, and President of Toyota Iraq Sardar Al Bebany.
Toyota Iraq is the official distributor of Toyota, Lexus, and Hino in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). The company is a partnership between Sumitomo Corporation, one of the largest Japanese general trading and investment companies in the world and Sardar Group, the experts in the automotive industry in Iraq and KRI. This combination of Japanese quality and Kurdish spirit has paved the way for the company to stand out in the automotive market in Iraq. Sumitomo Corporation, in fact, has been present in the country since the 1960s, but it suspended operations after the Gulf War in 1991, only to return in 2016 and became one of the first international companies after 2003’s Iraq War to form a joint venture with a local Kurdish partner.
Despite the company’s past challenges, and the turbulent history of the region, Mr. Ezaki was confident and optimistic when speaking about Toyota’s future in Kurdistan. His enthusiasm could be seen as he admired the virtues of safety and security in the KRI. He noted that the continued prioritization of security shared by citizens, expatriates, and entrepreneurs alike is evidence of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) unwavering determination to the region and vision for growth. This strong commitment, as he elaborated, not only improves lives but also creates an environment that enables economic growth.
At the core of Toyota Iraq’s vision lies a commitment to building a sustainable society, fostering a thriving environment and contributing to a robust economy that benefits all. In other words, the target group for the company is not only its customers, but all the local society. This vision, as Mr. Ezaki explained, is pursued through an integrated approach that includes corporate activities, public awareness campaigns, and capacity-building programs for local employees.
As the largest automotive company in Iraq, Toyota Iraq is also at the forefront when it comes to creating job opportunities. Currently, there are more than 1,100 employees working within the Toyota network throughout Iraq.
Capacity building and cultural practices
Operating at global standards and adhering to international requirements are top priorities for Toyota Iraq. The company routinely trains its staff in professionalism and efficient practices. But that is not all, the company has also embraced some unique Japanese cultural practices, including Kaizen and Omotenashi, to enhance skills, capabilities, and output of its teams’ members.
Commenting on these cultural practices, Mr. Sardar Al Bebany explained that Kaizen is a philosophy of continuous improvement that emphasizes incremental, systematic progress and involves all members of an organization in the pursuit of efficiency and quality enhancement. As for Omotenashi, he pointed out that it is a cultural concept characterized by exceptional hospitality, where hosts anticipate and fulfill guests' needs and desires with sincerity and attentiveness. Mr. Sardar Al Bebany also further elaborated that Omotenashi shares commonalities with Kurdish hospitality, especially when it comes to serving guests and people in need without expecting anything in return.
In line with these objectives, Toyota Iraq conducts regular training for its staff in the KRI and other parts of Iraq. Meanwhile, special programs are devised to train staff in Japan, where they learn about work efficiency and professional practices while acquainting themselves with Japanese culture and the social values of this fascinating nation and later on sharing the learned skills and practices with their colleagues back in KRI and Iraq.
Commitment to sustainable development
Toyota Iraq's commitment to sustainability is unwavering. Mr. Ezaki explained during the interview that the company has aligned itself with UN Sustainable Development Goals, specifically targeting "Quality Education" Goal and "Climate Action" Goal. This alignment has led to the implementation of projects that contribute and serve both goals.
Toyota Iraq, in cooperation with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), has successfully provided vocational training for young graduates and internally displaced People (IDPs), with 108 individuals emerging as proud graduates. The initiative is believed to have been effective, especially in the region where over 2 million refugees and IDPs arrived after the advent of ISIS.
Additionally, the company has forged partnerships with academic institutions like Erbil Polytechnic University, offering summer training for students, technical training for automotive instructors, and essential workshop materials and tools for their automotive department. These initiatives align with the local government’s plan to create more job opportunities and gradually diversify its economy to reduce its dependence on oil.
As global warming presents an imminent threat to the future of the globe generally and the Middle East especially, Toyota Iraq has taken its corporate responsibilities quite seriously, launching extensive tree-planting initiatives across the KRI, including the introduction of Japanese Sakura trees as a symbol of peace and cultural exchange. Furthermore, the company pioneered the introduction of "Reversed Vending Machines" in the region, enabling customers to recycle plastic and aluminum cans while earning loyalty program points for their Toyota and Lexus vehicles.
Additionally, education and awareness are pivotal elements of Toyota Iraq's sustainability drive. The company conducts orientation sessions for governmental and academic entities, shedding light on the significance of sustainability and hybrid technologies and thereby contributing to environmental protection and collective sustainability mindset spreading.
Concluding the interview, Mr. Ezaki and Mr. Sardar Al Bebany noted that Toyota Iraq will continue to contribute to the economic growth of the KRI and remain steadfast in its commitment to cultivating a sustainable and educated society. Drawing upon the rich experience of Japan in strategic development, Toyota Iraq is dedicated to fulfilling its vision through initiatives that aim to enhance living standards for everyone in Kurdistan. In Toyota Iraq's story, the Kurdistan Region finds not only an economic partner but also a source of inspiration for a brighter and more sustainable future for everyone.
Shamal Abdulla is a journalist with 18 years of experience in the field. He has held a number of prestigious positions, including news director at Kurdistan 24 and the editor-in-chief of BasNews.