November 04, 2015
TOKYO — If this 83-year-old billionaire is right, one of the most important lessons of business school is pretty much wrong.
All that stuff about focusing on shareholders? Forget it, says Mr Kazuo Inamori, entrepreneur, management guru and Buddhist priest. Spend your time making staff happy instead. He’s used this philosophy to establish electronics giant Kyocera Corp more than five decades ago, create the US$64 billion (S$89.8 billion) phone carrier now known as KDDI Corp and rescue Japan Airlines from its 2010 bankruptcy.
From Kyocera’s headquarters overlooking the hills and temples of the ancient capital of Kyoto, Mr Inamori expresses doubts about western capitalist ways. His views are a reminder that many bastions of Japanese business don’t buy into Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plans to make companies more devoted to shareholders.
“If you want eggs, take care of the hen,” Mr Inamori said in an interview on Oct 23. “If you bully or kill the hen, it’s not going to work.”
It’s a view that carries weight because of Mr Inamori’s success. KDDI and Kyocera have a combined market value of about US$82 billion. When Mr Inamori was named chief executive of Japan Airlines in 2010, he was 77 and had no experience in the industry. The next year, he returned the carrier to profit and led it out of bankruptcy. In 2012 he relisted it on the Tokyo stock exchange.
The secret, as Mr Inamori tells it, was to change employees’ mentality. After taking the CEO role without pay, he printed a small book for each staff member on his philosophies, which declared that the company was devoted to their growth. He also explained the social significance of their work and outlined Buddhist-inspired principles for how employees should live, such as being humble and doing the right thing. This made them proud of the airline and ready to work harder for its success, Mr Inamori has said.
The doctrine gained traction, in part because the line between one’s work and personal life is more blurred in Japan than the US. Not all of Mr Inamori’s tactics are so spiritual. His “amoeba management” system split staff into often tiny units that make their own plans and track hourly efficiency using an original accounting system. His turnaround also cut roughly a third of the airline’s workforce, about 16,000 people.