I was recently asked what Japanese company’s mission statement I most admired and I said Horiba’s “Omoshiro okashiku” which is translated into English as “Joy and Fun” (but the fun also means quirky, or as Horiba says “interesting” which is what I think many Japanese companies are to Western eyes, and that’s a good thing). I know from reports from our consultants in Germany that this ethos is transmitted to the overseas subsidiaries too. This interview with the President of Horiba in Nikkei Business by Higashi Masaki, the Editor, is so interesting, I have not made a precis, rather with big help from Google Translate, have left it pretty much as is.
Since Horiba Atsushi took office as president, sales have increased more than five times, and overseas employees are now the majority, transforming it into a global company. He has also developed a unique corporate culture, including calling employees “Horibarians” regarding them as part of the family. We asked about Japan’s challenges as seen by companies competing globally in technology development.
(Interviewer: Masaki Higashi, Editor-in-Chief of Nikkei Business)
Atsushi Horiba was born in 1948 in Kyoto Prefecture. After graduating from Konan University Faculty of Science in 1971, he joined Olson Horiba, Inc. of the United States. He then joined HORIBA, Ltd. in 1972. He is also graduated from the Department of Electronic Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, University of California, USA in 1977. After that, he directed the overseas expansion of the group, and after working as a director in 1982 and managing director in 1988, became president in 1992. He has also served as chairman since 2005. He has been in his current position for18 years. He is also the face of the local business community, such as serving as the vice chairman of the Kansai Economic Federation. He is the eldest son of Masao Horiba, the founder of HORIBA, Ltd.
The automobile industry is greatly affected by the new coronavirus.
It was a difficult time for car makers even without the coronavirus. This is because there is a dramatic switch towards “CASE” (Connected, Autonomous, Sharing, Electric). It is necessary to move from the “hard” industry, which competes through productivity gains to steadily manufacture high-quality cars, to the “light” industry, which has become IT (information technology) intensive. What was a simultaneous equation with one variable has now become treble the pain.
HORIBA has the largest share of car exhaust gas inspection equipment in the world. The main business is conventional car-related products.
Electric vehicles will be the mainstream in urban areas. However, the combustion type will not disappear in areas with harsh climates. Regulations will also become stricter. However, it is not a growing market, so I would like to expand the CASE field.
How to secure human resources is very important. In 2015, we acquired a British company called Mira (which supports the development of automobiles). We wanted the excellent R & D unit of about 600 people, but it also had test equipment related to CASE. Mira’s test track has research bases for automobile manufacturers such as Toyota (automobile) and major parts manufacturers, so tests and research can be done together.
The company motto is “Joy and Fun”, but is that feeling the same even with the coronavirus?
Now more than ever is the time to have “joy and fun”. All managers are at a loss now. Even so, we don’t feel so sad because we are working in various fields under this company motto. “Fun” does not mean “funny” but “interesting”. With that idea, we shifted our direction. It’s not absolute, but I feel that this helps us be responsive.
It is necessary to strike a good balance between being extremely advanced in a specific field and expanding the range in order to foster new businesses?
To be honest, I don’t think this is managed properly. But that’s what’s interesting, and it’s made up of the enthusiasm of each unit. Trust is at the base. For example, if you are studying optics, you can think of many people who would be good to consult with within the company.
It is unreasonable to expect people who are developing the products that are profitable now think about what the future needs will be. There is no Superman in the world. In many cases, human resources are crushed in search of Superman.
What kind of human resources are you looking for?
I often say that I don’t want a guy who has a good memory, that is, a guy who just graduated from a good university with good grades. Some of the students who are considered to be excellent in the world outside join us, but from our point of view, they are also “stupid” children (laughs). I often join in on the quiz shows for highly educated people on TV, but they are just competing for memory and have no sense.
What does ‘sense’ mean?
Whether you are interested. That is, whether you can do “joy and fun” However, if only “sharp angled” human resources are hired, the company will collapse. That is the balance.
In order to maximize the breadth of the business, it is necessary to have an organizational structure for that purpose.
Now, the biggest issue is the wall between each department. In a pyramid-type organization, individual departments do their best, but there is no interface to connect the results. But if the organization is flat, it’s not necessary. It’s in a mixed state. Instead, the person above needs to be a Superman who can figure out where and what is going on (laughs).
Is the solid financial structure with an equity ratio of over 50% also a factor that guarantees the realization of “interesting and funny”?
Companies with weak internal reserves will have a hard time during coronavirus. When it was said that it was bad to retain earnings, I thought that retained earnings should definitely be increased. This is to ensure that opportunities for M & A (merger / acquisition) are not missed. If you have to ask the bank for money, it may be too late and the target is acquired by someone else.
What do you see as the challenges facing the Japanese economy now?
We manufacture all the key products such as detectors, filters and electronic boards in-house. The problem with Japan is that we have go outside to get the basic science for these key products. You cannot apply knowledge if you do not have the basic science. Nevertheless, Japanese industry and academia are only doing applied science.
We have R & D units in France, Germany and the United States because the academia of these countries never let go of the basic science. Not only is China accumulating product know-how, but it is also conducting basic research. China is the best-selling market for the latest optical analyzer developed in France. It’s neither Japan nor the United States. We need to be aware of the fact that China is doing this very thoroughly.
It is a worry that China’s technological capabilities are rising rapidly.
Japan has not lost yet. I just don’t know after 4-5 years where we’ll be. They are thinking very clearly about the combination of academia and industry. The winners and losers in a battle of comprehensive strength are becoming clear. How do you get around this? I don’t like the word “niche,” but we’ve survived because we’ve put more people and money into a specialty than a giant company.
The Japanese, and Japanese technology and schools are excellent. However, various regulations and past shackles are in the way. For example, why does the faculty council have personnel rights even at universities? At Tsinghua University in China, the top management is steadily being replaced with excellent human resources. But in Japan, once you get tenure, you stay in academia until retirement. This is such an unfair situation.
Are there any other obstacles to your competitiveness?
If I weren’t Japanese, I would have headquartered in California, USA, and the company would have been three times as large as it is now. Taxes are high and fixed costs are high in Japan. Our main medical base is located in France because of problems with Japanese regulations. We just pay lip service to “deregulation” and in the meantime Japan declines.
Industry-academia-government must think about industrial policy and decide what to make a strength.
Even if the government and others hold meetings to gather the top executives of large companies, they cannot take the plunge because they have a company. When I first became President I was called by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (currently the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry), and when I talked about what I thought, I wasn’t called on again. The people around me just gave textbook answers.
However, the current Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is different from that time. What is worrisome is that bureaucrats who are trying to reform in line with our opinion tend to be off the career track.
Do they not want to change?
Perhaps they prioritize their own lives rather than the country. The sense of life or death of officials and politicians of the Meiji era is not there. I’m afraid that there is no sense of crisis about the fact that Japan is buying in more and more technology now.
China’s “brain” is talented people educated in the United States. There is no brain in Japan. People who are active (at the forefront) don’t end up leading government councils. Even if the technology and the times change, Japan still has excellent human resources, but they cannot “overtake” the incumbents. It’s the same with the top executives of large companies.
Because the term of office is fixed, the number of “salarymen” in top management has increased.
There is absolutely no business that will produce results in 6 years [the usual stint as President of a Japanese company] after investing from zero. It just means continual losses.
It takes at least two years for our products to be researched, tested, designed and finalized. It will be five years if the basic research is redone. It will take another 2-3 years to make a profit from it. Many things can be done with technology and machines, but this is useless if you do not develop people as well.
When the top executive who started a growth business retires after six years, and that business is making losses, he is said to be the “worst executive”, and when the next top executive harvests from what his predecessor has sown, he is celebrated as “great”. That shouldn’t be the case.
Don’t avoid developing leaders
What does it take to enable top management to think about things in the long run?
Japan is overwhelmingly strong in terms of both technology and human resources. The only weakness is the top. The United States and China are working hard on how to raise the elite. If we don’t train leaders, society won’t progress. On the other hand, in Japan, “elite” is a forbidden concept. In Japan, both politicians and business owners are a disorderly mob.
Japan is in a very dangerous state now. It has become a bogus democracy. True democracy has competition, and everyone is different. In the United States, they first educate elementary school pupils about how different each person is. But in Japan, it’s like “stop it, you’re annoying the old guy.” The responsibility of the media is also heavy.
It’s rare for a person at the top of a listed company to have a beard.
I nearly died of hepatitis when I was about 35 years old. Until then, I was just being the diligent president’s son. But at that time, I thought this is a turning point and I thought I would live a life where I do what I think is best, no matter what others say. My beard is a proof of that. From then on it became a lot easier.
You don’t know what works and how it works.
It feels like God only knows the future (laughs). However, there is a belief that we will make the best decision at that time by listening directly to the stories of people on the front line. I’ve done my best so I can’t help if it doesn’t work. However, people end up worrying about seeking more than the best.
You end up just wanting the correct answer.
The difficulty of management is that there is no correct answer. Everyone has the illusion that there is a correct answer, but there isn’t. The answer will come.
Side note from the interviewer Higashi Masaki
I don’t know if it’s because Japan has become richer or there is more inequality now, but as Mr. Horiba points out, “how individuals live” rather than the desirable way of organizations such as countries and companies should be has become increasingly the priority. It is important to note that the pursuit of personal well-being can sometimes be inconsistent with the interests of the organization.
For example, there is a tendency for top management to change and quickly write off assets of unprofitable businesses to generate a deficit. Then their predecessor has not made a loss, and the successor is certain to recover in a V shape during his term. The rewards for the two executives may be good, but is the timing as an organization optimal? As the mobility of talent increases, the relationship between individuals and organizations can become more difficult.
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