So it was, after a whirlwind few weeks, that I met David at Heathrow one Saturday afternoon and we boarded the long flight out to Tokyo (in economy, alas). At that time the only sensible route was over the Pole to Anchorage for refuelling and then on toTokyo (given thatRussia had yet to agree to its airspace being used by the new 747). The brief stopover in Anchorage provided a welcome opportunity to stretch the legs, enjoy a bowl of ramen and be glad that the enormous polar bear in the lounge was of the deceased and stuffed variety.
Unable to sleep on the second leg to Tokyo, I took to wandering up and down the aisles. Pausing near the emergency exit I looked down into the blackness through the small porthole and was greeted by a curious sight. Spread out as far as the eye could see were pinpricks of light all at equal distance. I moved across to the port side of the aircraft and was intrigued to see exactly the same. I beckoned to one of the hostesses to look and asked her if she knew what they were, “No idea,” she responded “but I’ll ask the captain.” After consulting on the phone she turned to me with a smile and offered, “Russian fishing fleet.” in that delightful Japanese lilt. We flew over this vast armada for half an hour. Failing in my attempts to calculate how many square miles of North Pacific was being covered and how many tons of fish were being gathered, I realised I was exhausted and returned to my seat and slept.
We arrived the Sunday afternoon at Haneda airport to be greeted by the horrendous queues that were by then a constant feature. Haneda, although conveniently close to Tokyo centre, was desperately overcrowded and the new Narita airport was not finally due for opening until the following year. After a quick shower at the hotel, we were met by what became the usual delegation from the Foreign Trade department, headed by a senior manager, Sugino who was unusually tall for a Japanese man. What followed became a constant feature of my trips to Akai. Firstly, I had to make my presentation to Sugino and his team at the hotel; this was greeted by sharp intakes of breath and pronouncements that Horie-san (the director in charge of foreign trade) would never agree to this or that some other aspect could never be contemplated by him. This went on for several hours, by which time I was hungry enough to start gnawing at my own limbs, but didn’t give any ground. It had been agreed that David would take a back seat whilst I, as the new man, would stick his neck out selling the process as the new start that I was heading.
Finally, Sugino, said that he would speak with Horie overnight to see if he considered it worthwhile even meeting us the next day, and announced that we should go to dinner. The evening taxed even my youthful stamina and ability to drink and it was gone midnight before I crawled into bed. The following morning we were collected by one of the department’s junior managers and driven to the Akai office. The first few hours were filled with a variety of junior managers wanting to ‘clarify a few points’; the clarification inevitably leading to request for reconsideration of one point or another that had already been discussed endlessly. The juniors would depart whilst we were offered more green tea and then return to start the ritual once more. By lunchtime, neither Sugino nor the elusive Horie had made an appearance. A curious interpretation of a sandwich lunch followed.
And so it continued, until sometime in the late afternoon, at the point that David and I were ready to stage a walkout, Sugino appeared apologising profusely saying that Horie had been detained at a meeting with some important visitors and would be joining us for dinner. Would we like to relax with a bath before dinner? Having spent the day in a windowless meeting room, I was ready to agree to almost anything. In fact, I had already become a fan of the Japanese system of communal bathing and massage and readily agreed (David taking some persuading).
Following a leisurely bath and relaxing massage, Sugino took us to what was clearly a very expensive restaurant. We were ushered into a private room where a very urbane and distinguished looking Japanese man in his late forties introduced himself as Horie. No business was discussed that evening. Horie concentrated, in an extremely polite and sociable manner, on seeking to find out as much about me as he could. The meal went on for a considerable time and was served in what seemed an endless series of courses all presented on exquisite, lacquered dishes. David was obviously not a fan of Japanese food and had been doing his best to avoid eating more than a morsel of anything. However, he seemed to perk up at one dish which included what looked like two small bacon rashers. With the rashers poised in front of his lips David, looked across smiling at Horie and enquired, “Horie-san, what are these?” before popping them into his mouth and proceeding to chew enthusiastically. Horie raised an eyebrow and glanced at Sugino who smiled back at David explaining, “Ah, how you say, cock of pig?” David stopped chewing, looked aghast and realising that he could only continue with his mouthful, proceeded to chew ever more slowly, his face reddening as he did.
In the morning Sugino met us at the hotel and drove us to the office where, after the obligatory wait, we were joined by a smiling Horie. Following tea and more polite conversation, Horie invited me to present the business plan. My presentation was accompanied by constant interruptions and haranguing from Horie. The day wore on in similar manner with Horie finally stating that there was no way he could present the plan to his board without major changes. David and I suggested a breakout and together we agreed that we had to make some changes if we were to stand any chance of getting the contract renewal. We returned and said we needed to review all of the points Horie had made and consider if any changes were possible to our plan. We returned early to the hotel where we agreed to increase the units we were proposing to purchase, but with a corresponding reduction in the price we paid. We ate a quick dinner and David left me to make the changes to the business plan. The changes complete, I sat in the top floor hotel bar gazing out high over an incredible vista of the blinking lights of night-time Tokyo wondering if it would ever be possible to win the contract renewal. The nagging doubts of possible failure stayed with me, producing a night of troubled sleep.
The following morning Horie was nowhere to be seen and the previous pattern was repeated with Sugino leading the discussions. Game playing and histrionics became the order of the day once again. I couldn’t believe how so much time could be spent going over the same ground in ever finer detail, time and again. The day passed slowly until it was announced early evening that we were going for dinner. Sugino disappeared and we were taken off in a taxi by two of the junior managers. First we went to a bar for several hours before being taken for dinner (considerably less sumptuous than the previous evening). We then went onto the classic Japanese bar where hostesses joined us for more hours of stilted conversation, much joking and karaoke. I crawled into bed at some point in the early hours.
The next morning dawned with us due to catch a flight that evening and still no nearer an agreement. Yet more negotiations followed at the office but I was beginning to feel that we might just be edging closer together. Lunch was the usual sandwiches after which Horie appeared and announced that Sugino would draft a letter of intent with us for signature. I couldn’t believe that we had got to this point. The hours ticked by as every word was considered, reviewed, challenged, changed, agreed and finally the document was typed up. It was late afternoon before Horie reappeared and we signed the letter of intent, which included the commitment that the President would sign a new 7 year distribution agreement in London later that year, providing we were meeting our plans.
We were driven to the airport where the first thing David did was to demand my ticket and charged off to the JAL desk where he promptly upgraded us to first class. “We’ve bloody well earned this.” he stated. Upon boarding we were greeted by Gerry (Angus’s recent replacement) and Harry (my counterpart who had run the Nikon business for years). The two of them had also had an extremely successful trip and we partied most of the first leg to Anchorage. On the long flight back over the Pole, still buzzing with elation, I had time to reflect on events while the others slept.
The pugnacious side of my nature had clearly been guiding my actions when I agreed to take on the role of running the Akai business. By this stage I had begun to believe that I could achieve success at whatever I turned my hand to. Having had by then over 10 years of unbroken achievement and ascendency I really did feel invincible. This week’s trip to Tokyo seemed to prove that I certainly could go on achieving results. However, I felt strangely alone in my new role, having left behind my own, hand picked team and a very supportive boss in Peter (and indeed Angus).
I had sold myself and my plan to a very tough new company; now the only thing I had to do was to deliver on my commitments. The problem was that the hill was now even steeper than it had first appeared and I wasn’t entirely convinced that my new team were 100% supportive.
Image courtesy of Panoramio