The Hitachi group of companies, estimated to be the second biggest company in Japan in terms of employees after Toyota, and 4th in terms of revenue, has turned itself around considerably since 2009, when it chalked up “the largest loss in Japanese manufacturing history” of around $8bn.
It led to the premature ousting of Kazuo Furukawa as President, replaced by Takashi Kawamura as CEO and Chairman, who at 69 was 8 years older than Furukawa and must have thought his career was in a graceful curve towards retirement, as chairman of Hitachi Maxell and Hitachi Plant Technology.
Kawamura handed over the Presidency to Hiroaki Nakanishi in 2010, and continues as Chairman. A series of articles in the Nikkei Business magazine recently describe how he turned the conglomerate around to profitability in two years.
He describes how he saw Hitachi in 2009 as a “boiled frog” whereby each division was fooled by the cosy feeling of the slowly heating water, unwilling to make radical changes until it was too late. Japanese like to stick with things as they are, he comments.
Corporate governance was not working at Hitachi in 2009 he says. All the group companies were run by an Old Boys network from the Hitachi main company. If a younger President had been appointed, and wanted to change things, it would have been difficult to persuade his seniors. As Kawamura was older than most of the other presidents, he was able to push through reforms.
He describes Hitachi as having a “donburi” style of management [donburi is a rice with toppings dish] whereby the loss making businesses were covered by the profitable ones. “Bad businesses should be brought out into the open and a judgement made as to whether they can be reformed or scrapped”. This was forced upon Hitachi by the Lehman Shock but Kawamura was also more able to do it because he had been in a subsidiary of Hitachi.
Employees used to believe Hitachi was the unsinkable battleship. It survived 2 oil shocks without much impact on its financials. Japan’s big three electrical companies – Hitachi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi Electric used to be known as the wandering samurai, the merchant and the feudal lord respectively. A wandering samurai thrives when times are good, but is not flexible about change when it’s necessary.
There was also something known as “Hitachi Time” – whereby major decisions had to take account of so many people, including Old Boys and therefore were very slow to be reached. In 2009, Hitachi was renamed the sinking battleship. Kawamura uses a story he heard about the British Navy,as a metaphor for what had happened to Hitachi. British battleships were taking on about an inch of water a year, which will caused the ships to lose speed, so in the end, they are rusted up and useless. Hitachi had made losses in 2001, 2006 and 2007 as well as in 2009. Apparently the reason the the battleships took on water is that they had become heavier every year. This was due to an accumulation of personal possessions by the staff on board. So the British Navy is now very strict about what personal items can be brought on board.
(to be continued – what Kawamura did to reform governance)
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