YuYu interview Masayoshi Morimoto

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What brings you back to San Diego?

I have returned to San Diego at this time to attend a formal presentation and to accept the Japan Society of San Diego and Tijuana’s Business Leadership ward. I initially came to San Diego in 1972, when I was 33. In Japan, I was in charge of human resources and personnel management, however, I was given the task of helping lead Sony’s first venture into America, which was the setting up of our San Diego plant. I took over the post of assistant plant foreman and remained there for 15 years. Even still, my daughter and her husband and a great many of my friends are here, so I come back to visit about four or five times a year. In Japan, I don’t get much sun, so when I come to San Diego it’s nice to get out and enjoy the sunshine.


—— Please tell us how you came to work for Sony.

My senior year in college, in the summer of 1961, with everyone out furiously job hunting, I had no desire to join a Japanese company and I was at an impasse. In college, I had studied American corporate law and the American Constitution and therefore I felt a desire to leave Japan and be involved in work overseas. It was at that time that I came across a newspaper article about Sony’s attempt to put together foreign venture capital in an effort to start a Japanese enterprise called ADR (American Depositary Receipts). I was interested in this and I wanted to hear more for myself in person, so I headed for Sony’s headquarters and just popped in. I was mistaken for a job applicant coming to pick up some company literature and ended up meeting with then-vice president and founder, Mr. Akio Morita. I had an impromptu interview and after about 30-minutes he said, “You’re a fascinating guy. Want to join our company?” And I answered, “Sure, I’ll join you.” And just like that, without even having to take the company exam, I was hired.


—— Please tell us some of the details of your ensuing appointment in San Diego.

29_1.jpgI wanted an international career and that’s why I joined the company, but I was put in charge of the human resources and personnel management departments. I was bored and I was planning to leave after a year, but then, fortunately, I was selected through an in-house search to participate in the Columbia University Business School in America study program and I was given the chance to go to the states for one year. As for my resignation, I got a fresh start upon my return to Japan and went back to my original job. But my desire to go overseas over time grew stronger. For me to study abroad, however, the company had paid a large amount of money. In return, after I came back to Japan I had to serve an obligatory apprenticeship, and wasn’t able to just walk away form my job. I subsequently ended up being in a position to work with the world-renowned consulting firm McKinsey & Company Inc., and I made up my mind to leave after my mandatory service period was over. It was at that time that I got an unexpected phone call from Mr. Morita who said, “We’re finally going to build that plant in San Diego. Would you like to go?” It was America! I was so happy. I was eager to travel to San Diego to find out how I would do in a country where the elite come together.


—— What problems did you encounter upon arriving in San Diego?

In terms of work, it was hiring personnel. A total of eight people, including a plant foreman, accountants, engineers and myself, came from Japan. The rest were regional recruits and it was a case in which we started by asking, “How do we conduct a search for personnel?” We had to bring in people who had a certain level of management ability to be in charge. “Can this person really get the job done?” is what we had to ask ourselves and that decision-making process was difficult. Now Sony is well known, but at the time we were only No. 3 or No. 4 among brand names and we had no applications from college graduates. In spite of that, we had no problems hiring the personnel needed to set up our first overseas manufacturing plant, working hard every day on a trial-and-error basis.


—— After 15 years in San Diego, you then returned to Japan?

Following that, in 1987 I took over as the president of Sony’s Brazil operations and I spent 10 years, from age 48 to age 58, in San Paulo, Brazil. My wife is Argentinean, a neighboring country, so she was ecstatic.
 
As far as the work, there were many dilemmas. Unlike San Diego, where I only oversaw production, I was in charge of all the design, production and sale of parts. I was an overseas executive and in that position I had to take responsibility for everything. It was a situation in which I could never get away with an excuse like, “Brazil’s economy was weak so the cars wouldn’t sell.” When inflation was high it was rough, but starting in 1994, for three consecutive years, I was the winner of the president’s award. It was at this time that the Brazilian company’s bottom line exceeded that of Sony Corporation of America.


—— Your wife is Argentinean. Would you tell us how you two met?

29_5.jpg Before I went to Columbia as a foreign student, I studied English in a six-week extension course at California Berkeley. My wife was a classmate at that time. Even though she had come to America from Argentina right after graduating from high school, she and I, who had graduated from college in Japan, were in the same class. That meant we had the same English ability. You know, I got an idea of just how low the level of English education in Japan is. I had long since had an interest in Spanish and liked the Argentinean language and had often listened to Trio Los Panchos. Because of that, we had something in common and started seeing each other. I still have a way to go, but I feel that since meeting her, I am a little closer to being more sophisticated about the world.


—— What do you feel you have gained in the 25 years you spent in America and Brazil?

Well, you know, because I spent time abroad from the age 33 to age 58, I don’t have a grasp of the everyday expectations of a typical Japanese businessman.
 
For instance, I have never been to karaoke and have never gone to hang out in a Ginza bar or club. If you’re in Japan, “kissing up to people” is sometimes necessary, right? (smiling). In my case, I spent time in an environment in which that kind of thing was irrelevant. Both Mr. Morita and the San Diego plant foreman, my superiors for the most part allowed me to do what I liked. In addition, they granted my requests. Within the organization, there was no red tape. I am 64 years old and the reason I am told that I look younger than my age is probably because I didn’t suffer so much when I was young (smiling).



—— Was there anyone in your life who was a big influence on you?

That would be my father. He graduated from a private elementary and high school, went off to become an apprentice at a fabric manufacturer and started his own business in Osaka Whether he had an inferiority complex or it was “the significance of learning” or “the importance of reading,” he always told us we had to have our own opinions about things. For instance, he would never let me get away with saying, “My friends are going skiing so I want to go too.” It wasn’t about “my friends,” or “everyone at school,” it was that we had to be clear about “who you want to go skiing with.” And we were told to figure out the cost, and when we came back home, if we didn’t offer an account of the event, he would say, “Hey, how was it? Tell me how you spent the money!”
 
Because I grew up in an environment like this, I also later gained experience as our high school student body president. The high school I attended to was coed, but only the girls were able to go on school trips. Also, space heaters were available for use by the after-hours classes, but for those of us in full-time school, those heaters were banned from use, even in the middle of winter. I thought to myself, “I have to change this,” and I became the student body president. The school turned down the requests and eventually told us that “If boys go on school trips, they won’t study and will get into trouble by venturing into the girls’ rooms,” and “the students in the after-hours school take the responsibility to switch the heaters off, but you all will probably forget to turn them off.” It was unfortunate that we couldn’t go on school trips.” The boys received postcards from the girls who went on the school trips and people asked each other “How many did you get?” The others were envious of me (smiling).


—— What has been one of the impressionable instances in your life?

One day in 1999, I was on my way to France for a business trip and got on an Air France plane and the president of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., Carlos Ghosn, was sitting in front of me. He had just arrived in Japan but he had been in the papers and on the TV news, so I recognized him immediately. I hadn’t been acquainted with him but Mr. Ghosn was born in Brazil and he was pleased to hear me speak to him in Portuguese. After that, the plane we were supposed to take experienced some kind of trouble and the flight for that day was canceled. There was nothing we could do, so we stayed the night and the next evening I got on a Lufthansa flight bound for Frankfurt. When I did, Mr. Ghosn again happened to be taking the same flight. We took the opportunity to get to know each other and he is still a dear friend. An interesting thing is that this year, he was appointed as an outside executive of Sony. Our relationship is very interesting.


—— Please talk about your dreams for the future.

Starting in June of this year, I took over as the president and COO of the Benesse Corp., whose education business accounts for 80 percent of company’s sales. One thing I’m pleased about is that my dream and my goals for my work have become unified. As far as today’s youth, I feel apprehensive about leaving the future up to them. The reason this is the case is that there’s a problem with Japanese education and I think it’s necessary to have fundamental reform of the education system. For instance, during the “Let’s Study More” global effort, because of the “relaxed education” style Japan introduced cut backs in areas such as the curriculum, which I think displayed an irresponsibility on the part of the Education Ministry (now known as the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology). In the future, I’m considering assisting in the restructuring of this flawed education setting that children are currently learning under. I tend to be seen as a workaholic, but that’s not the case. I like to enjoy time away from work with the people I meet on the job and therefore I hardly eat dinner at home. Moreover, once or twice a week I go out and eat with the younger associates and through real communication, I pick their brains for ideas. Even now, as I continue to work in business I am truly happy. I still have a home in La Jolla and whenever it is that I retire, the day will probably come when I come live in San Diego again.


Masayoshi Morimoto ・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・

Mr. Masayoshi Morimoto: Benesse Corp. President and Chief Operations Officer, former President of Sony Manufacturing Co. of America. Born in Osaka on March 31, 1939. Graduated from Tokyo University’s school of law in 1962, entered the Sony Corporation. In 1983 took over as president of Sony Manufacturing Co. of America; in 1987 became president of Sony Comercio y Iduustria Ltda.; in 1995 became Sony executive; and in 1999 became corporate executive officer of Sony Corp. In 2001 became president of AIWA Co. Ltd. after becoming adviser of Benesse Corp. in 2002 and took over current position in June of 2003. Mr. Morimoto has 25 years of experience, starting in 1972, in San Diego and Brazil as an overseas resident worker. He is a founder of the Japanese supplemental education school, Minato Gakuen, established in 1979. Currently he resides in Tokyo with his Argentine-born wife.

(11-01-2003 issue)