Full of beans and keen as mustard: Alumnus and Toyota New Zealand CEO Neeraj Lala

Toyota New Zealand’s recently appointed CEO, alumnus Neeraj Lala, reflects on his time at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington and his two decades long career with Toyota.

Neeraj Lala standing in front of a car

What was the most useful thing you learnt at university?

What I learned through the whole university experience was about the power of networking and relationships—whether that be your relationships with your tutors, the relationships you have with your mentors, or the relationships you have with the different faculties.

What sorts of opportunities did study at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington open up for you?

The international marketing course I took in my final year made me decide I wanted to work for Toyota. It was quite a practical course that involved an evaluation of Toyota’s ‘Welcome to our world’ campaign and how you take a Japanese car brand and make it a New Zealand car brand. That series of lectures really crystallised for me what I wanted to do and that was work for Toyota and help continue the legacy that was unpacked in that case study.

What’s your strongest memory of studying at Victoria University of Wellington?

My strongest memory is definitely graduation day—you don’t really get a sense of the impact of your achievement when you’re going through it, when you’re on the treadmill thinking ‘I’ve got this paper today’, or ‘I’ve got this course today’. It’s hard when you’re in the middle of that process to really take a step back and think about the big picture, but graduation day was that for me.

I think if I was to go through that process again I’d probably take more time to enjoy what the university has to offer.

What have you been doing since graduating?

I only applied for one job seriously when I finished university and that was with Toyota. It took nearly six months to get my first job at Toyota, and I had to twist their arm with a bottle of curry mustard and a can of baked beans to try and entice them that I was full of beans and keen as mustard to get my foot in the door! I was quite single minded in wanting to be here, if it took six months or a year I wanted to stay the course. So that was 22 years ago, but I’ve felt like I’ve had a new job every three or four years through the company in lots of different areas.

What’s been a highlight of your career so far?

Being selected to do the Toyota Executive Leadership Development Programme in Los Angeles would have to be a highlight because it was quite a humbling experience. Coming from little New Zealand to quite a big country and company, you go from being a big fish in a small pond to a little fish in a giant ocean. The whole experience of the leadership programme was about softening the rough edges and being humbler in terms of what you see and how you might contribute in quite a different environment.

The challenge with New Zealand, and we joke about it sometimes but it’s a serious issue, is that we have a Tall Poppy challenge. So, to be able to remove yourself from that and go and learn and grow was a real highlight.

What do you love about your current role as CEO of Toyota New Zealand?

Simply, I just love cars. I’m really passionate about cars. It’s like being a professional sportsman, I feel like I get paid to do what I absolutely love every day.

What are some of the challenges facing Toyota and your industry?

The sustainability issue is our single biggest issue for transport. As an industry we need to be leaders in this area. There’s a real conflict at the moment between doing what’s right and providing mobility for customers. You can’t just go “Let’s take all the light commercial vehicles off the road and replace them with EVs” because there needs to be the infrastructure, the EVs need to be accessible to customers, people need to be able to do their job. There’s this balance at the moment, and this real challenge, about how do we go from consumers of higher emission product to lower emission product.

We’ve got a good plan to tackle this, but of course we need to work closely with Government and the wider industry to make sure that journey is positive for transport. I think Toyota has a big part to play in that.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

My boss and friend in the US told me I need to be a confident leader but a humble leader. You don’t want to lose your confidence because that’s what is needed in an industry like this, but I think you need to be a humble leader who is able to take your people and teams along with you—so that’s been the best piece of advice I’ve had in my career.

I won’t say be patient, because even though that’s a piece of advice I’ve been given many times it’s not one I enjoy hearing!