The business of life (Chapter 13 – hubris strikes)

The once enjoyable relationship I once had with Akai colleagues in Japan as their distributor, was changing quickly into a nightmare now I had joined the new business in the UK as an employee.  Constant requests for information and action came fromTokyo at all hours and I learnt quickly that the Japanese would simply not accept the failure of any plan or compliance with mere instruction.  Decisions seemed to take forever and I found that the much vaunted system of collective decision making in Japanese companies wasn’t because it was more efficient, or more motivational, or whatever the text books were claiming; it was simply to avoid personal responsibility if things went wrong. Seppuku may have been no longer practiced in its literal form in 1980 but it certainly lived on in a metaphorical sense.

The promised further injection of capital never materialised and more than once I was required to present a re-working of the financial budget at a week’s notice or less and to jump on a plane toTokyo to present it.  The journey to the bank also became a well trodden path delivering regular cashflow projecions.  On one occasion when I met Yokose at Heathrow one Saturday afternoon for yet another trip he looked like death.  It transpired that he had last slept on Wednesday evening and had continued to work through the next two nights merely allowing himself a change into pyjamas and slippers.  He worked all through the flights toTokyo and again through Sunday night following the inevitable initial rejection of our latest business plan.  Witnessing this I began to feel increasingly uneasy over my decision to join a company with such an alien (and to me inhuman) culture.

I was beginning to become selfish when it came to working beyond 18 hour days and the stress was rising.  One evening arriving home yet again extremely late and completely exhausted, my phone rang and I answered it to find  it was one of the Japanese on the phone demanding I return to the office to deal with something minor.  “It is your duty!” I was informed when I suggested that it was not an emergency. I snapped, said something inappropriate and slammed the phone down. Grabbing a bottle of Scotch, I slumped in a chair and knocked back a stiff shot.  The next thing I remember was finding myself on the floor clutching my stomach feeling like I had been stabbed through.  Although not diagnosed precisely as such at the time, subsequent events led me to realise that this was the start of stomach ulcers.  My doctor gave me stern instructions to take three weeks off, stay away from alcohol and to take things easier in future.

Gordon was supportive but more than a little surprised when I declined a drink with the lunch we had together just before I returned to work.  The pressure from Tokyo to increase sales was growing weekly.  Our results were still improving strongly (and were on course for a 50% total increase since the new company started and would be trending steeply upwards at a running rate of £13m p.a.) but this was still not enough to satisfy our masters.  The problem for us in theUK was not profit but cash and they would not accept that the relentless pressure to increase sales was fuelling a demand for working capital we couldn’t finance from our own resources. Tokyo management had reneged on its promise of further cash injections and our bank was getting more and more nervous about increasing our facilities.

My large marketing budget soon came under attack and I fought back strongly with all the logic and all the evidence I had that our strategy was working.  I put forward the most robust evidence of the brand share increase we were gaining (especially against arch rival Pioneer, which should have been greatly satisfying to Akai) and the danger of reducing momentum.  I felt let down; Akai had agreed my business plans, promised more capital support and we had delivered everything and more that been promised in terms of results.  Our marketing mix was working and I wasn’t about to roll over and see ourUK position worsen.  My natural inclination to meet opposition head on came to the fore and I continued to resist.  Sorely in need of a break (and heeding the warnings about my health), I departed with the family for a glorious holiday touring California.

Returning refreshed I found that the situation had worsened, finding Andy planning a frankly amateurish sales promotion campaign, which he had not discussed with me (and was now trying to avoid doing).  Yokose started in on me immediately, telling me that Andy had assured him that this promotion would compensate for cancelling the majority of our communications programme. I responded that the problem wasn’t one of our dealer network not buying enough, it was of chronic under-capitalisation.  At a time of intense competitor activity to establish leadership in the new VHS and racked HiFi systems, I reasoned that we would lose all of the ground we had won.  Worse, we would find it almost impossible to recover again.  Yokose simply would not listen and fell back on that logic resistant mantra that seem to be drilled into Japanese people from birth; “We have to manage somehow.”  I realised further discussion with him was impossible and beat a retreat thinking that perhaps I could yet convince him.

The following week I was working in my office one afternoon when I heard three hefty thumps on the dividing wall between my office and Gordon’s (his usual manner of attracting my attention).  I smiled to myself and walked into his office.  By then we had an easy going relationship (except when he was ‘in his cups’ after one of his ‘networking’ lunches) and I expected he wanted to chat.  “Boy, you’ve got a problem with the Japanese.” he said immediately and thrust a plain white envelope across the desk at me.  I went cold realising what was in the envelope.  “If this is what I think it is, is the situation negotiable?” I asked, looking him in the eye.  “I’m afraid not,” was the response, “but you’ll see it’s generous and, between you and I, I’m happy to tell anyone who asks that you resigned, needing a change or whatever you decide to say, and are still working for us on a contract basis.”

I hadn’t exactly put the sword in my own hands but the effect was the same.  I had been fired.

 

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