Avuncular Titan who embodied Japanese corporate culture

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Taizo Nishimuro was an avuncular and widely admired titan of the Japanese business establishment who ran three of the country’s most important companies and exemplified both the good and the bad in his corporate culture.

Nishimuro’s embodiment of the Japanese word darling genki (vigorous and fiery) and an easy-going manner, say the people who worked directly for him, masked a harshness and tenacity that gave him a distinctive advantage. For a culture that places the indefatigable above many other qualities, he was a hero. When he passed away last week at the age of 81, he had been retired from the elite of Japanese management for less than two years.

In terms of the highest possible praise, Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, president of the Japan Association of Business Executives, last week applauded a man who had “worked for Japan until his last moment.” To his detractors, he was one of the factors holding Japan back: an aging business leader who maintained an outsized influence in Japan and appreciated the role of “ghost” of the boardroom.

A serial trader, with extensive experience doing business outside of Japan and a particular passion for overseas expansion, Nishimuro has been both acclaimed and condemned for his efforts to transform Toshiba, the Tokyo Stock Exchange and Japan Post – all mainstays of the corporate scene and each with their own brand of resistance to their grand and sometimes hastily-conceived visions. “Management is a science,” he told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, “being a CEO is an art”.

The first four decades of his career were devoted to an almost permanent rise in the ranks of Toshiba, the company he joined as an intern after graduating in economics from the prestigious Keio University in Tokyo. By the time he stepped down as president of Toshiba in 2000, he had significantly restructured one of Japan’s most famous conglomerates with an “internal” management system designed to delegate responsibilities and speed up a notoriously decision-making process. slow.

Some continue to hail this achievement as pure iconoclastic brilliance. Others see it as a recipe for lax risk control and the origins of a profit scandal that humiliated the company in 2015 and continues to taint the Toshiba brand.

“I have strived to make significant changes to Toshiba’s image,” Nishimuro said when asked about the scandal that erupted a decade after his resignation as chairman, “I don’t clearly haven’t tried hard enough “.

Despite the ambiguity of his time at Toshiba, Nishimuro maintained a mystique and a reputation for sterility with the public and the business elite. Few were surprised when, in early 2005, he became chairman of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Even more strikingly, later in the year the president of the TSE resigned after a series of big technical problems. Nishimuro also happily accepted this role.

On the Toronto Stock Exchange, Nishimuro again wavered between exuberant, charm-propelled pioneers – such as negotiating an alliance with the New York Stock Exchange – and inability to foresee negative consequences. A few months after deliberately pitching TSE to the world as a potential partner for other global exchanges, fears emerged that Nishimuro had opened it up to a takeover. He was forced to admit that he was considering installing a poison pill for TSE while waging a campaign against Japanese publicly traded companies.

The final presidency was from Japan Post, the former state colossus which included the country’s largest bank and insurer. The job was politically toxic, ready for interference, and nearly impossible to come out of unscathed. No one wanted it, but Nishimuro accepted it in an act of widely applauded patriotism. When Japan Post finally succeeded in its massive public offering in 2015 and concluded the most tortured privatization in the country’s history, Nishimuro naturally slipped into the role of reassuring face for the sale of shares.

But in an effort to dress up Japan Post for the IPO as a company entering the global logistics market, Nishimuro once again gave in to his love of trading and paid generously for the Australian Toll. Holdings. The subsequent huge depreciation forced Nishimuro’s successor to report a loss for Japan Post’s first full year as a listed company.

As the chairman of Toshiba, Nishimuro inherited a status that it was only natural for him to seek high office within the powerful Keidanren business lobby, a group that has historically exercised considerable influence in shaping national policy. . He became vice chairman a year after leaving Toshiba’s chairmanship. Other roles in public life included chairing a panel set up to promote reconciliation with China and South Korea based on “deep reflection” on Japan’s wartime actions. The 2015 panel report, as Nishimuro put it, “historically clearly” indicated that Japan had committed acts of aggression.

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