Executive Insider: Mike Groff

The Toyota Financial Services leader shows why he isn’t the stereotypical CEO 

December 05, 2017

Mike Groff has a secret. From afar, the Toyota Financial Services CEO strikes a stern and businesslike figure. But in conversation? Turns out the dude is hilarious.
 
Groff is quick to answer a joke with a low-toned, bellowing laugh and a joke of his own. Further, he believes the key to being a good CEO is forming relationships with the people he leads. We could tell you more, but we’d rather let him tell you below.
 
However, if you want to see Groff’s sense of humor for yourself, click here to watch the video.

Editor's Note: Unfortunately, you can only watch the video if you're connected to Toyota's network. Sorry about that. 
 
Driver’s Seat: Let’s talk about your title. That’s a big boy title. Does it feel good to just be CEO?
 
Mike Groff: It certainly feels good, but let me tell you why. I’ve been with TFS for almost 34 years and I did seven years with GMAC before that, so over 40 years total. And every once in a while, you dream big. I’ve had my shot to be the captain of the ship, and it’s been a privilege to do it.
 
When you find out you’re gonna be CEO, I feel like that would be a “let’s celebrate!” moment, and then the next day you say “Oh no, what have I done?”
 
There’s a lot of truth to that. I would say it’s a bit surreal because I had worked so long, but when it actually happened it was pretty hard to believe. It’s definitely a mixture of emotions because you’re excited and certainly flattered, but you also start to feel the responsibility you’re gonna carry.
 
What’s your strength?
 
I always found some irony in the fact that I was never particularly good at math, but wound up running a finance company. I don’t know if I’m the only one who sees the irony in that.
 
I’m really a marketing and operations person. I think people see me more as someone who knows how to run the business, that it takes all parts of the business to be successful.
 
If you’re not a numbers guy, what qualities do you have that make you good at this?
 
Well, I always felt I could be CEO because my experience over the years is deep. Other than the specialty positions in our company, I’ve done everything here. And by specialty, I mean they won’t let me run the legal department. They say I needed a law degree. I don’t get that. I took one law class in college, and I think that would be plenty!
 
TFS is technically not TMNA. But how would we describe the relationship? Partners?
 
I think the discussion of TFS and TMNA is an important one. I think a lot of people would say we’re the financing arm of Toyota, and that’s technically true. But TFS is a supporter of the car company. Roughly 80 percent of cars sold in America are financed. But it goes deeper than that. As we got bigger and the world got more sophisticated, people started to realize that TFS is also a marketing arm. Why is that? Because we do all the special financing programs for TMNA. Further, we know when leases mature and we can call those customers and say, “Hey, your Camry is coming due. Guess what? We got a brand new Camry!”
 
When people talk about our greater purpose, we consider ourselves the enablers of people’s dreams. They need a car to get to work, to take family members to the doctor, to take them on family vacations. So you can’t say we’re just a money provider. We’re part of our customers’ lives.
 
Smile for the Camera -- Toyota Financial Services CEO Mike Groff always takes time to have fun with his job, even when he's visiting one of our manufacturing plants. 
 

What’s the most embarrassing experience of your professional career?
 

You mean just today?
 
Ok, not counting this because this interview is clearly it.
 
I think I’d have to narrow down the list of embarrassing moments in my life. But this comes back to me clearly. About 30 years ago, I was at my desk, my phone rings, little did I know it was an executive about to congratulate me on being selected for a very exclusive management development program. Here’s the problem with the phone call: I had just eaten a couple of Milk Duds, and I started choking on them. And so I started coughing and I had to excuse myself from the phone call to go get a drink of water. So I’ve got this exec siting on the phone wondering where I’m at. Meanwhile, I’m in the other room choking to death. I had to come back and tell him I had a really nasty cold and I had to cough. And by the way, I’ve never had Milk Duds since. I was traumatized. I moved on to M&Ms.
 
One thing about TFS that really impresses me is how active you guys are in the community. Is that a directive from you or is it a result of you letting your people do what they do?
 
I don’t think you can have a directive on community service. People do it because they’re passionate about it. I would say the tone coming from the top is important. It’s something I’ve developed a passion for over the years. And it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s not even just good for the people you help, but our communities expect it. On top of that, team member engagement is up because they’re proud to work for a company that supports that.
 
What are some things TFS has done that you’re really proud of?
 
One is Boys and Girls Club of America, and I happen to be a national trustee now. It started as a very small relationship 10 years ago. We supported one club in L.A. to get a feel for what they did. Now we support clubs all over the U.S. where we have offices. We support clubs in Puerto Rico and Mexico. We support them financially and we support some of their national and regional programs, like their Youth of the Year program. This was the sixth or seventh year that we’ve given a brand new Corolla to their national Youth of the Year. On top of that, eight or nine of those young people now work for Toyota.
 
How would you describe your leadership style?
 
I would say that in my early career, I probably would have been considered an authoritarian. But as you move up the ladder, that doesn’t work. I really consider myself an empowerment person. And it may sound cliché, but you hire good people, you give them a framework of what they’re supposed to do and you let them do the best that they can. So if I have to be too involved, I don’t blame them, I blame myself. Because that means I’m doing something wrong. I also believe in MBWA. Know what MBWA is?
 
Nope, what is it?
 
Management By Walking Around. You walk around, you say hi to people as much as you can. Thank them for what they’re doing. Learn things along the way. All you gotta do is stop by. On your way out of the office, ask people what they’re doing. They’ll be more than happy to tell you.
 
By His Side -- Groff is quick to point out that his wife, Mary Kay, likes to tell him his basketball career fizzled out beacuse of his lack of speed or shooting abilities. Other than that, he would have been great. 

 
How do you maintain the ability to look at the full picture of TFS?
 
I actually think it gets harder every step you move up in the ladder. You get a little farther away from the actual work. Things get filtered. So you do have to be careful that you’re not too disconnected from what’s really going on. So what do you do about that? MBWA. Go ask a few people. Have people that you trust in the organization that you can ask and make sure the temperature is what you think it should be.
 
How do you get customer loyalty?
 
We have to be empathetic with our customers. There was a personal transaction going in. They made a decision to buy our product, and now they’re gonna test us when something goes wrong. They’re gonna test our service. So when you’re as big as we are, you’re getting tested every minute. Are we perfect? No. But I think we have a game plan that has our people focused on the importance of customer satisfaction.
 
In your position, is it hard sometimes to not run into the day to day stuff? Do you ever want to just get on the phone and call people and either show that empathy or demand the money?
 
You know, I started in this business on the phones with customers. That was a long time ago, but I haven’t forgotten any of them. So no, I don’t really have a desire to jump on the phones because the people we have trained to do that are much better equipped than I am. They have the tools. They know the systems and they’re much better suited than me.
 
That’s wisdom right there.
 
Yep, that’s wisdom.
 
By Dan Nied
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