Monday, October 17, 2011

Corporate Japan at its worst

In the good old days when I was in business school, Japan could do no wrong. A million books were written on the Japanese style of management. America was bust, Japan was everything. Case after case taught at business school was on how gloriously managed Japanese businesses were. At that time the two words we were thoroughly sick of was Japan and Walmart ! Time has since proved that there is a fair bit to admire about Japanese management, but a lot that is thoroughly rotten.

A great example is what happened at Olympus last week. This is the company that makes cameras.They just fired Michael Woodford, their CEO, and a 30 year company veteran, two weeks after elevating him. They were brave enough to appoint a non Japanese as their CEO, one of a handful of Japanese companies to do so and foolish enough to sack him immediately. His crime - he didn't listen to the Chairman Kikukawa san and started probing into the financial skulduggery that seems to have gone on.

The skulduggery relates to the acquisition of Gyrus, made in 2008. The acquisition was for $2 bn. Olympus then made payments for advisory fees of $687 m to two virtually unknown firms. Nobody can trace who the owners of these two companies are. One of them, registered in the Cayman islands has since disappeared off the registry 3 months after receiving the last payment from Olympus. These payments were not disclosed to shareholders - instead they were hidden in goodwill by adding to the acquisition price. Now, who on earth pays advisers fees of $687 million for a $2 bn acquisition ?? Not even Wall Street is that greedy.

KPMG, their auditors disagreed with all this accounting wizardy and were promptly sacked for their endeavours.

Woodford started to enquire into this and was told to shut up and look elsewhere. His crime was that he did not listen.

Woodford was summoned to a Board meeting were he was told to zip his mouth and not speak. The solemn directors then proceeded to fire him. The function of the board, alas all too often in Japan, is to bow one inch lower than the Chairman. So much for corporate governance.

The rigidity of hierarchy in Japanese corporate life survives to this day, Grovel and obey without question. I am still amazed how they managed innovation with that culture. I am sometimes inclined to credit some divine providence for all the wonderful innovation in product and quality systems that came out of Japan. How else can you explain  that coming out of a Stalinist corporate culture.

The only lot who are thoroughly unimpressed by all this is the Japanese investor. He has cheerily driven down Olympus' share price by 24%. Kikukawa san and his deputy Mori san may still have to fall on their sword soon.