A positive management style takes root in Japan
Be decisive. Reward generously, but punish lightly. Delegate authority wholeheartedly.Skip to next paragraph
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These are some of the key characteristics of top managers, according to Ichiro Isoda of Sumitomo Bank.
This year Mr. Isoda was named banker of the year by the respected financial journal, Institutional Investor.
''He took a shattered institution,'' said the journal in its August 1982 issue, ''and introduced some of the most sweeping managerial changes ever seen in Japan.'' The result was that last year Sumitomo, Japan's third largest bank, regained its position as the country's most profitable financial institution - a recovery the journal characterized as ''miraculous.''
Mr. Isoda does not at all fit the stereotype of the cautious, cold-blooded banker. Nor does his style of management accord with the image of time-consuming , consensus-seeking Japanese executives. During his university days Mr. Isoda was rugby team captain, and today the septuagenarian remains tall and erect and his eyes flash that old do-or-die fire.
Sumitomo's troubles began in December 1974 when it appeared that Ataka, then Japan's ninth largest general trading company, looked as if it would go under because of the failure of a Canadian refinery it had invested in. Mr. Isoda was then vice-president of the bank, which for many years had been Ataka's main financial institution.
''The main bank system, I think, is one of the strong points of the Japanese financial system,'' Mr. Isoda said in a recent interview in the Tokyo office of the bank. (Sumitomo, one of prewar Japan's three major zaibatsu, or trusts, is headquartered in Osaka, as are many of its top clients.)
Under the main bank system, an enterprise has a close relationship with the principal bank from which it borrows funds. Because most enterprises in Japan are undercapitalized, they are heavily dependent on banks for money. An enterprise's ''main bank'' will nurse it along in lean times and share in its prosperity when conditions improve.
Sumitomo had been uneasy about Ataka for some time and had been gradually reducing its loans, Mr. Isoda recalled. Nevertheless, the relationship with Ataka had been a long one, and when the news broke that the company might have to default on loans, the Sumitomo board was forced to make up its mind in a hurry.
Until then Sumitomo had a reputation of being hardheaded. Its position as Japan's most profitable bank was built on careful evaluation of loan risks and by unsentimental dumping of even long-established customers in trouble.
Mr. Isoda argued strongly to board members that not only Ataka, but Japan's international credit, was at stake. The oil shock of 1973 had created a jittery mood around the world, and Japan, as a nation dependent on imports for 99 percent of its oil, was considered a potential danger spot. The sogo shosha, or general trading company, is a uniquely Japanese institution, buying and selling in huge quantities all around the world, often operating on slender margins of profit. ''A manufacturer has tangible assets, but a trading company has nothing but the confidence of its customers and suppliers,'' Mr. Isoda said. ''If it loses that, it has nothing.''
Allowing Ataka to go under might raise questions in the international financial community, even about Japan's largest trading companies such as Mitsui or Mitsubishi, Mr. Isoda argued. That could be disastrous for these companies and for the Japanese economy.
If Ataka were to be saved, how much would it cost, and should Sumitomo shoulder the lion's share of the burden itself even though it had been reducing its loans and had fewer loans outstanding than another bank? It was calculated that Sumitomo might have to cover as much as 150 billion yen (about $600 million) of Ataka's bad debts the first year. Altogether the rescue operation might cost $1 billion.
Mr. Isoda stressed that Sumitomo could afford these sums and that no other bank was as well placed to bear the brunt of the rescue operation. It did not have to dip into deposits because it had $4 billion of its own resources. (Japanese banks are allowed to own shares in other companies.)