From Student to CEO
Alumnus Jim Lentz returns to DU to deliver the Commencement address
When Jim Lentz sits down for an interview, he already knows at least one question to expect: What was your first car? “That’s the first question I usually get in interviews,” he says.
His answer is guaranteed to disappoint anyone expecting a souped-up hot rod or a flashy new car. When he turned 16, his aunt passed away and he was given her 1964 Chevy Corvair.
“It was a little rear-engine, rear-drive piece of junk,” he recalls. “It had a unique feature that the bottom of the floorboard of the car had rusted out. So, I had a sheet of plywood and I had a big rubber mat and anytime I went anywhere near water, I’d put both feet on the thing so that water wouldn’t shoot up.”
Lentz has come a long way since growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. Today he oversees all of Toyota’s North American affiliate companies, including Toyota Motor Sales and Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing. Getting to this point involved a lot of hard work and the application of what he learned while attending the University of Denver.
“DU really prepared and taught me how to work as part of a team,” he says. “It gives you a lot of confidence, so when you are faced with complex issues, it isn’t time to panic. You challenge yourself to get things done.”
When Lentz enrolled at DU, he thought he might eventually pursue a law degree, but ultimately, he decided to get into business. He found DU’s small class sizes appealing because they provided an opportunity to build relationships with professors. “That’s one thing that makes DU so special,” Lentz says. “The professors really seem to care, and they are passionate about what they do, and they get you excited about things.”
Outside the classroom, Lentz played on the golf club and intramural hockey team. Inside the classroom, he earned his bachelor’s degree in marketing and economics and an MBA in finance. After graduating, Lentz worked four years with Ford before joining Toyota. It was at Toyota where he faced the first significant test of his professional career. His manager told him he had the weekend to decide if he was going to change the way he led people. If not, they were going to fire him. He spent that weekend soul searching and thinking about what was important to him and whether he was willing to change to satisfy someone else’s idea of leadership.
“I basically said, ‘I guess you are going to have to fire me.’ It was at that point that I really understood what my guiding principles are, what my core values are and at that point in time, just by luck, those were the same kind of values that Toyota had.”
Instead of getting fired, Lentz accepted a demotion and was transferred to a different area within the company and restarted his career. This is the lesson he plans to share with the class of 2017 during the Commencement ceremony for undergraduate students. Lentz will deliver the Commencement address almost 40 years to the day after he finished his undergraduate work.
“I’m trying to put myself in their shoes to understand what they will be thinking, and I think about what I was thinking back then. Where do I want to live? What industry do I want to be in? What company do I want to be with? How much money can I make? But, those are probably the wrong questions to be asking,” Lentz says. “I’ve learned over time the most important question to answer is: Who am I? To understand who you are, what are your guiding principles, what are your core values, what do you value in life. If you can understand that, it will help you select a company that shares those values.”
Discovering those values has helped Lentz succeed at Toyota for 34 years. He has upgraded his car from the Corvair to the Lexus NX Hybrid, and he says he’s humbled by the opportunity to come back to DU to deliver the Commencement address.
“It’s obviously a tremendous honor,” Lentz says. “It shows that an average student from a small suburb of Chicago can work hard, accomplish a lot of things and get recognized by their university. So, I’m pretty excited.”