SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Steve St. Angelo, head of Latin American and Caribbean operations for Toyota and Lexus, donned a pair of shades when he took the stage at the Sao Paulo auto show late last year.
"The future is so bright," he said during a presentation to the media, "we're going to need sunglasses to see."
Indeed, despite the heavy clouds of economic recession and political upheaval hanging over South American auto markets, Toyota sees rays of hope.
Sales for the Toyota and Lexus brands rose by a modest 13,829 units in 2016 to 391,720 vehicles in the 40-country region, Toyota said. In Brazil, deliveries were up 2,148 to 179,448. (Mexico, part of North America, isn't included.)
While that wasn't exactly sizzling, it's certainly a start for a company that has been a bit player in the region compared with competitors such as General Motors and Volkswagen.
And there are small signs of economic recovery in Brazil and Argentina, two of the biggest economies in South America, along with some glimmers among the smaller nations in the region.
St. Angelo, a 30-year GM veteran who joined Toyota in 2005, is realistic about what can be achieved from year to year in a part of the world subject to big boom-and-bust cycles.
"We're a conservative company and we believe in what's called sustainable growth," he told Automotive News. "That means don't get all hungry and go wild and bring in this car and that car, because eventually the market will turn."
Case in point: Brazil became the world's fourth-biggest vehicle market in 2012 with 3.8 million in sales, only to see that slashed to around 2 million last year as the commodity-based economy cooled.
Toyota, a relatively small player in Brazil, was able to hold on to most of its volume by stressing quality and durability to picky consumers. As a result, its market share grew from 3 percent in 2013 to about 9 percent today, St. Angelo said.
"We're not buying market share," he said of the incentives being offered by competitors. "There's a lot of hard work at the dealers."
That includes teaching sales staff how to manage trade-ins, since Brazilians mostly sell their cars on the open market -- particularly Toyotas, because of their strong resale value.
"We consistently watch customer satisfaction; we consistently watch our warranty data," he said. "We want to make sure that when we grow, we're growing in a responsible way."
Toyota's value-based proposition in the market is one reason for St. Angelo's optimism. So is Latin America's potential for sustained growth once it gets out of its current funk.
The region's population is projected to grow by 42 million by the end of the decade, St. Angelo said. And there are only 1.6 vehicles on the road for every 10 people, lower even than Mexico at three vehicles per 10.
One key for growth has been bringing the region under one chief executive.
"The secret weapon that we didn't have before is there's 40 countries in our region and before they were just taking care of themselves," said St. Angelo, who took the regional helm in 2013. Now, "we share best practices continuously throughout the region."
St. Angelo, who has seen Toyota's regional market share grow from about 5 percent in 2012 to 10 percent today, compares his work now to planning for a harvest later.
"We're not chasing the fruit right now," he said. "We're just working on the roots of our tree."