By Norihiko Shirouzu and Kentaro Sugiyama
BEIJING/TOKYO, Jan 22 (Reuters) - The man who led the development of Toyota Motor Corp's Prius hybrid car is set to become the Japanese automaker's chairman as early as this year, said two senior executives familiar with the matter, in a boardroom shuffle that should do little to lessen president Akio Toyoda's grip.
A final decision to appoint Takeshi Uchiyamada, 66, to what is effectively the No.2 position in many Japanese firms has not yet been made and the promotion could still be postponed for a year.
But it's already been an "established direction" and a "given" since last year that Uchiyamada, vice chairman since June, would replace Fujio Cho, who has been chairman since 2006, said the executives, who didn't want to be named as they are not authorised to speak to the media.
A Toyota spokesman declined to comment.
One of the knowledgeable company executives described Uchiyamada's promotion as being a "highly anticipated" move since last year when Toyota asked Cho to serve one more year as chairman. Cho, a 75-year-old Toyota veteran who was company president from 1999 to 2005, would become a senior adviser.
Toyoda, grandson of the automaker's founder, considers Cho a lynchpin of his power and support base inside Toyota and may even ask him to stay on for yet another year as chairman, even though Cho has recurring back pain and has said he wants to retire, the two executives said.
Toyoda's grip on the company's management team and board should not be impacted, they said. "It's a case of a pro-Akio executive replacing another Akio supporter as chairman," said one. "This isn't going to change the whole scheme of things at Toyota."
Japan's Nikkei economic daily reported late on Monday that Toyota had picked Uchiyamada to replace Cho this year.
In many Japanese companies, including Toyota, the chairman's role is often to take charge of external affairs, such as government and industry affairs, while the president runs day-to-day operations. Cho has served as chairman of the Japan-China Economic Association since 2007 and is chairman of the Japan Sports Association. He has also served as a vice chairman for Keidanren, Japan's main business lobby.
The Nikkei said in its report that Uchiyamada was likely to become vice chairman of Keidanren.
Uchiyamada, an experienced vehicle engineer, was a prime mover behind the first-generation Prius in the 1990s - a car that has gone on to become the world's best-selling hybrid. He also supervised Toyota's manufacturing division, and was named as executive vice president in 2005.
Toyota, the world's largest car maker by volume sales, blazed a trail for mass producing quality cars, but tripped up by expanding too fast into the U.S. muscular SUV and truck market at a time when the yen was rising. It was also hit by a reputation-denting mass recall and severe supply problems after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. It has since rebounded, helped by a relentless cost-paring drive, but remains under pressure from rivals such as Volkswagen AG and Hyundai Motor Co.
Uchiyamada graduated from Nagoya University with a degree in applied physics in 1969 and joined Toyota a month later.