A MAN FOR ALL SEASONINGS
Few executives anywhere have seen as many economic cycles as the head of the world’s best-known maker and purveyor of soy sauce and other global seasonings.
He’s not as young as he used to be, but he still cuts a dapper figure in person. At 84, he is one of the elder statesmen of Japanese business, not merely by virtue of age, but due to the widespread respect he commands both at home and abroad.
Yuzaburo Mogi, the Honorary CEO and Chairman of the Board of Kikkoman Corporation, is in many ways the face of the company. Back in the early 1970s, he pushed the traditional soy sauce maker to set up a factory in the U.S.—years before Japan’s giant electronics companies and automakers did the same. His strategy of local manufacturing, local sales and responding to local needs was decades ahead of its time.
How does this farsighted executive feel about changes in Japan today? For example, many Japanese companies set 60 as their mandatory retirement age, but are now hiking it to 65 in response to the growing labor shortage. How does Mogi see that change?
He is quick to respond: “There are lots of people who are still vigorous and want to work until 70 or even 75. Why should they be forced to retire? Older workers have a wealth of knowledge and experience. Putting those assets to work, perhaps by having older workers teach younger ones, is a smart policy. It’s good for the company, good for the workers and good for society. Everyone wins.”
Regarding Japan’s labor shortage he says, “The short-term answer is simple: we must make the best possible use of our existing resources. That means providing better working opportunities for both seniors and for women.”
Many Japanese companies are now putting a strong emphasis on hiring employees with IT or technical skills. As Kikkoman is deeply involved in biotechnology, does Mogi share that emphasis on technical expertise and IT skills?
He thinks a moment and replies, “Of course, IT skills are important today, but for most workers, they’re only a tool. Business is fundamentally about people, not technology. To succeed in business you must understand people.”
“I hear some executives say that history, literature, philosophy and so on have no value in the business world. I disagree. I believe our education system is too specialized; it has forgotten the importance of liberal arts. If you don’t understand the background of something, the human perspective, you can’t really understand anything in business today.”
His most incisive comments were about rapid change, risk and middle managers’ inability to deal with both: “One thing I notice is the increasing pace of change. Of course, there is change in any era. But now the business cycles are much faster. There is greater pressure for companies to make changes quickly. Management must adapt. However, today’s middle managers have never experienced a period of strong economic growth. To use another sports analogy, they’ve never been on a winning team, so they don’t know how to win.”
“In fact, top management isn’t much better—in many cases senior executives are just as risk-averse as middle managers, afraid to invest even when doing so is necessary for a company’s growth. Simply put, people are afraid of risk," he says.
What should be done? Mogi replies quickly that “both employees and managers should be given a wider range of experiences to broaden their outlook.” Bold, decisive men such as Mogi helped to build Japan into the economic giant it became in the 1970s and beyond. To continue growing in this century, the nation needs more leaders with his values, insight and vision.