Japan needs to realise what it lacks to rise again: CEO

Japan needs to realise what it lacks to rise again: CEO

The following is the sixth instalment of the "Message II" series, featuring Haier Asia International President and CEO Yoshiaki Ito, who is the first Japanese to head a firm in the giant Chinese home appliance maker Haier Group Haier Group, the No. 1 home appliance manufacturer in the world. Prior to being appointed to his current post in February, Ito worked for Sony Pictures Entertainment (Japan) Inc., Coca-Cola (Japan) Co. and Dell Inc., among other companies. Born and raised in Bangkok, he also speaks Thai.

Japan and the Japanese people should start realizing where they stand and where other countries' peoples stand to understand what we lack. We're no longer the leader of Asia and never will be again unless we change.

Japanese companies, which used to be shining rising stars, are becoming shooting stars these days. If you look at the TV market for instance, it shows the positioning of Japanese companies versus South Koreans. The same thing is happening in white goods. Haier has been replacing Japanese makers in China.

Japan has always isolated itself from the outer world. Japanese change only when there is external pressure, like when [Commodore Matthew] Perry arrived and Japan opened up its ports. I think we're in the same phase now as we are on the verge of facing external pressure. We're in a new era-the Internet era-where we're at a zero distance with consumers, everything is connected and everybody is connected. Without being able to keep up with the change, Japan will never rise.

Unlike Japanese companies, which have been in a championship position for so long, Haier has only 30-plus years of history, so we're a newcomer and have the spirit of the challenge. In terms of white goods, Haier is the major dominant player globally, but in Asia, we're still in a challenging position as the main sales are in China. Then I got a call from a headhunter, saying they needed me. I love their new challenge-branding, so that's why I ended up here.

Haier in Japan is a purely Sanyo operation bought by Chinese, and if I follow the Sanyo way, or Japanese companies' ways, it's a Japanese-run management style. You go to any country and you see Japanese staff in all the key executive positions, while local staff don't have much chance to move up because after a few years, there are always new Japanese coming in who don't know the market. It was OK in the past. But I don't think we're at that stage anymore. You just can't wait for these newcomers to get adjusted to the new market. So I've started sending back some Japanese staff and promoting the local talent as key executives, and that's going to keep happening.

I've also reduced job grades to five layers, including executive officers, from 14 layers, which is so typical of Japanese companies. Reducing job layers enhanced speed and then more simply, made clear roles and responsibility. Because in Japan, in many cases, a person says, "Oh, I have to check with this person." To me, that's like: Everybody is involved in making decisions equals nobody's responsible.

When it comes to making a business decision, "roughly right" is my fundamental principle. You can never ever be 100 per cent right because the 100 per cent definition differs depending on the individual, and by the time you get to the 100 per cent level, you'll lose your timing. Timing is the key in business, and if you make decisions faster, that means you get more time.

God has given 24 hours to the poor and the rich, and to anybody, equally. Time is the only thing that's fair to every living creature. How to utilize that time depends on each individual, and my biggest struggle is how to maximise the use of that time.

Today, talent is about multilingualism, debate skills

People often say, "Japanese are very smart." I would question that. Really? Go to Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, everywhere, you'll find local talent with multilingual capability. Multilingual with an MBA from overseas, compared to that talent, regular Japanese talent-single language capability, not used to debating-is so weak. How can you compete with them?

Since I joined this company, I've travelled to Southeast Asia three times in four months. What I've realised is that local talents and capabilities are enormous. The [common] denominator of these talents is being multilingual and capable of debate, presentation and logical thinking, and the pool of people who are good at these is much bigger. Sorry, it's a fact.

When I was working for Sony Pictures Entertainment for Japan, I interviewed 300 students for jobs. Among the top 10 people I selected, five of them were non-Japanese. They were studying for their master's in Japanese and working at the same time at night.

Look at all the 7-Elevens and izakaya. You see lots of Chinese and Southeast Asian kids, speaking our language so fluently. They're striving, working so hard to master the new language with cheaper pay. Yet we're doing ikki ikki [binge drinking] style in front of those hardworking Asians. I don't think young Japanese are inward looking. It's more like they don't know what they don't know. They're so used to a monocultural background and haven't seen a successful role model.

All the new companies will soon start hiring these Asian talents with multiple language capability. Believe me, sooner or later, very soon, it's going to flip, and these guys are going to rule the world. Then, Japanese will finally realise, "What have we done?"

That's why I keep insisting, pick up the language. That's the minimum. I don't really like people to say, "Oh, I can't speak English." Language is a tool nowadays, the same thing with the Internet. You can't just say, "Oh, I'm not good at the Internet." You have to be able to utilize the Internet. You can't just live on your own.

I went to an international school in Bangkok, which represents 50 countries, and I went to Thunderbird, an American graduate school, which represents 80 countries. I've worked in Japan, Thailand and the United States for German, Swedish, Japanese and American companies.

English happens to be a common language globally and is the common platform to live as a business person. I want to make Haier truly a global company, and that's why we're in the process of making English the common language in the company.

My career goal always has been to contribute to the society where I grew up. I was born and raised in Thailand. So that'll be Southeast Asia. When I was 5 or 6 years old, I was in an air-conditioned car, a pretty nice car with a driver, waiting for a traffic light. There was a little kid, the same age as me, barefoot, selling flowers, whereas I was in the car, nice and cool. Then I started wondering what's the difference between this kid and myself. Does it mean I'm better? That's not the answer. I just happened to be born in a well-off family. Because it happened on a daily basis, it really influenced me. So I thought that, in the future, if I'm ever in the position of a business leader, then my duty is to give back to society.

As my childhood dream was to build my own company producing cars, I always thought my career was going to be in the car industry-up until I got involved in a car accident in the United States. Luckily I survived, but I felt I couldn't do cars anymore as they can kill people instantly. I'm not a Christian or anything, but I think God has given me this experience. As a result, I began working for many industries, trying to make a difference in each industry as an agent of change.

I think many Japanese consumers know Haier is a Chinese brand. I probably have an additional challenge in terms of that, but I'm not in the position to comment on that and I still believe that we can make a difference.

With the fast pace of globalisation, I don't think we're in a phase of saying, "I work for Chinese," "I work for Japanese," or "I work for Koreans." It's meaningless. I happen to be a Japanese born and raised in Thailand, working for a Chinese company. What I'm building here is a true Asian brand led by Asian talent.

I consider myself Asian before I consider myself a Japanese. Yes, I'm Asian! There're so many talents all over the world utilizing multiple languages.

Having a nationality is just like holding a passport. I just happen to hold a Japanese passport.

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