The cover story for the Nikkei Business magazine (JPNS) for October 20th 2014 is somewhat doom and gloom,claiming that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ reforms were too slow, and it’s now in the last chance saloon. The four part special includes an interview with the president, Shunichi Miyanaga, who has been leading the reforms and also a handy checklist so you can make sure your Japanese company hasn’t also become fossilised like MHI. One of the items on the list is whether “You have lots of Japanese expatriate staff, and the local hires view them as the secret police”
The online counterpart to Nikkei Business also has an interview with Christina Ahmadjian, an American who has lived in Japan for 17 years and is now a professor at Hitotsubashi University, who was appointed as an external, or “outside” as they say in Japan,director of MHI in 2012. She’s also on the board of Eisai, the Japanese pharmaceuticals company. Needless to say, she speaks fluent Japanese – and was also an “accidental Office Lady” in her past, at Mitsubishi Electric.
She termed MHI “super-Japanese” for its slow decision making and initially did not want to take up the role. Her friends cautioned her, saying there are plenty of other Japanese companies who are more advanced in their reforms that she should consider. However the then President and chairman took her presentation to the board very seriously, which led her to decide to “try it for a year, and quit if it didn’t work out”.
She continues this un-Japanese attitude by regularly asking in board meetings “who is accountable” and asks for specific commitments from anyone who uses the typical Japanese vague term “kento shimasu” (we will study this further). She also insists that strategic rather than technology related subjects are discussed in the board meetings.
President Miyanaga has also changed the board meetings, through reorganising the company into four domains, and decreasing the representatives accordingly to the board, which has allowed for smoother discussions. Ahmadjian says she is surprised by the speed at which Miyanaga has moved, and also how careful he is to share all information with her, including on any M&A activities. Previously, Japanese companies had been reluctant to involve external directors as they were concerned that confidential matters would be leaked.
Nonetheless, MHI is still slow compared to the foreign competition, she says. MHI is beginning to appoint non-Japanese to senior positions overseas but there is a lack of candidates internally. It’s not always the case that it is easier to get rid of people in foreign companies, she argues – in Europe the unions can be very strong and she suggests that some Japanese companies are using legal barriers as an excuse not to restructure, and are in fact “zombie” companies.
“I am a watch dog, making sure MHI do not slack off on their reforms” she concludes.
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