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Toyota Motor Corp., which faces huge challenges in North America, once its most lucrative market, has put two company veterans with years of U.S. experience in charge of the region.

The Japanese automaker also has created a management unit focusing solely on North America as part of a series of organizational changes, including the appointment of new President Akio Toyoda, announced this week.

Toyota is grappling with plunging sales — down 39 percent so far this year — and idle production capacity in the United States that contributed to its $4.3 billion loss last year. Under the new structure, Yoshimi Inaba, a former U.S. sales chief who was recently rehired by Toyota, will be based in the United States and hold two traditionally separate jobs. He will be president of Toyota Motor North America, the New York-based regional holding company, as well as chairman of Toyota Motor Sales in Torrance, Calif., according to a company statement.

Inaba will report to Atsushi Niimi, an executive vice president based in Japan who once headed Toyota’s U.S. manufacturing operations.

Niimi will be in charge of the North America Operations Group as well as chairman of Toyota’s North American manufacturing and engineering subsidiary based in Erlanger, Ky.

The company said the organizational changes are designed to allow each region to take more initiative. At the same time, the management appointments seem aimed at helping Toyota’s top managers keep close tabs on the U.S. market, traditionally its most lucrative.

At his first news conference as president, Toyoda said Thursday in Tokyo that the U.S. auto market could evolve to comprise more smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles. He said Toyota needed to increase its responsiveness to customer demand in each market.

Some company executives believe the automaker was unprepared for the sudden changes in the U.S. market after focusing too much on developing and selling large vehicles, said Masaki Taketani, analyst at CSM Worldwide. “They have to change,” he said.

Under the new system, the Americas Operations Group has been split, with the Central and South American business shifted to another unit including Middle East and Africa operations.

Within North America, Toyota Motor Sales President Jim Lentz will report to Inaba, who will be the highest ranking officer in the U.S. and will be based in New York. Tetsuo Agata remains president and CEO of Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America in Kentucky.

Steve St. Angelo is appointed executive vice president of the U.S. manufacturing subsidiary and a managing officer of the parent company in Japan. St. Angelo remains president of Toyota’s Georgetown, Ky., assembly plant.

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