The Humble Son-In-Law

Dec 15, 2008
*Special to asia!
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How a man's "small business" attitude keeps the flag of Suzuki's sprawling empire flying.

On 19 January 2007, Suzuki Motor Corporation was entertaining more than 700 of its sales representatives in a top hotel in Tokyo.

A spry 77-year-old man who sat at the last table—the one closest to the kitchen—stood up and went to each and every table to chat with the men. He also took many of the wives of the representatives on to the dance floor.

When the party moved to a second bar—Japanese custom dictates that a good celebration must take place in three different drinking locales—he plonked himself down next to a sales representative from a provincial town and said: "We are both sons-in-law who became bosses. We must try harder."  The salesman was so touched he nearly cried.

The old man was Osamu Suzuki, chairman of Suzuki and the man credited by his rivals - such as Richard Wagoner of General Motors - as the world's foremost expert in building small cars.

One of the longest-serving chief of a major carmaker, Suzuki is known throughout Japan and he developing world.

He is a pioneer in making cars in Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, and India, and has plants and joint ventures in more than 30 countries. The man himself is well known as a hands-on businessman who visits each plant annually and makes numerous suggestions to cut costs.

In Japan, he is known as the "humble son-in-law". Born Osamu Matsuda, Suzuki married the grand-daughter of the founder of the eponymous motor company, who had no male heir. The young man then went on to take on the wife's surname, as is the practice in Japan.

Suzuki has never forgotten his roots. Of all the major car companies, only Suzuki alone has no shinning headquarters. Its regional offices are old; the furniture fit for donation to charity.

His plants, alone among carmakers, have glass roofs.

"Sunlight is free, we must make full use of it," thus were Suzuki's words.

In the plants, components are stacked slanting, so that the one on top rolls down automatically when the bottom one is taken out.

"Gravity is free, we must make full use of it," the man similarly said.

Suzuki is not mere skinflint. He is trying - and has somewhat succeeded - in keeping a "small business" attitude in a sprawling firm that has an annual revenue of nearly US$24 billion ands some 40,000 employees.

He remembers the names of most Suzuki sales representatives and their background (hence the comment on sons-in-law). He dances with their wives so that the women can push the husbands to work harder for Suzuki. He sits at the last table, the only top Japanese executive ever to do so, to show that the firm’s salesmen are more important to Suzuki than its chairman.

He pushed Suzuki into small cars while others were going into big ones. He moved to developing countries while others focused on Europe and America.

And it works. Despite the company selling its pint-size cars at thin margins, it still makes nearly US$600 million last year, of which a large chunk is ploughed back into research and equipment.

In Japan, Suzuki says, many good gyoza (fried dumpling) shops started in old wooden restaurants and, when successful, moved to big, modern settings. It is there that they raise their prices and their food become tasteless.

Suzuki has spent his life making sure his company does not go the same way. At 77, many have retired but Suzuki intends to carry on until he drops. "I want to die in battle," he declares.


lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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