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Minoru Makiharah, Former Chairman Mitsubishi Corporation, Recieves Alumni Achievement Award

There is more than one way to get an education at the Harvard Business School. Minoru Makiharah attended the Executive Education’s 75th Advanced Management Program and used his knowledge to turn around the Mitsubishi Corporation, which had stumbled during the Japanese recession. The company’s key problem? Previous management had focused too exclusively on Japan, missing out on important changes and opportunities elsewhere in the world. Due to its iconic status as one of Japan’s flagship companies, the turnaround had a positive effect not only on the company, but the country as well.

Makiharah had spent time in the U.S. and other parts of the world as a Mitsubishi executive and he soon put this knowledge to work. First, he put an end to the company’s reliance on debt and started raising equity capital. He implemented an open door policy, which allowed him to gather ideas for new programs from all levels of the organization. He encouraged the company to focus on foreign markets, including China. Following his accession as Chairman of Mitsubishi, he worked hard to strengthen U.S. and Japanese ties, both as Vice Chair of Japan’s Keidanren (a highly regarded business council) and as Chairman of the Japan – U.S. Business Council.

Harbus: How did you hear about the Advanced Management Program (AMP) at Harvard Business School?

Minoru Makiharah: Prior to that time, Mitsubishi had sent five or six people through [AMP] and every year two more would attend. We found the program very valuable, though in a sense it is different from the regular HBS MBA program.

Harbus: Who was your favorite professor?

MM: Warren McFarlane.

Harbus: Do you keep in touch with your former AMP classmates?

MM: Unfortunately, only a few of them [kept in touch]. Our class was too busy and we lost track…

Harbus: What was the most valuable lesson that you learned in the program?

MM: Well – these won’t be in order of importance. I learned there is value in getting away from daily business to think about what could or should be done. Without significant vacation or holidays it is hard to stand back and reflect on priorities.

Harbus: What did you like the best about the program?

MM: Meeting people from other countries and finding out what they are thinking. I also found the case studies to be exciting. And, of course, the people [professors] were all very stimulating.

Harbus: You implemented an open door policy at Mitsubishi. Was that resisted or considered radical?

MM: Well, yes and no. It’s true that I emphasized it. In order to run a general trading company, it is absolutely essential that you get ideas and suggestions as broadly as possible from across the corporation. I also asked not to be addressed as “President so-and-so” – that immediately creates an atmosphere of a vertical relationship. It is very hard to solicit frank opinions under those circumstances.

Harbus: What is your most significant challenge going forward?

MM: What I am trying to do is push the organization to have a global presence – to expand decision making all over the globe [rather than keeping it centralized]. Our people in London and America are much more global in thinking and it is helpful that English has become the de facto standard language. I keep on pushing for a sense of recognition that markets are much more global now.

Harbus: How do you feel about the changing geo-political landscape, particularly in the Middle East, and how do you think it has impacted business?

MM: It greatly concerns me…for example, the new security procedures are making people less happy about traveling. Whereas before I might have thought “I may as well jump on a plane and go meet people,” now the security makes you think twice. The U.S. has to recognize that in the medium and long term there are certain minuses to this. But as economic standards [in developing countries] rise, people are starting to recognize that a market economy is the best way to allocate talent and resources.

Harbus: If you think nothing of saying “I may as well jump on a plane and go meet people” you must be an extrovert.

MM: No, I don’t consider myself an extrovert. Generally speaking, the Japanese are less extroverted than Americans. I consider myself on the shy side; for example, I don’t like giving speeches that are longer than 20 minutes.

Harbus: What advice would you give a young Japanese adult starting out after college in Japan?

MM: Every individual must have their own values – an idea and a vision of what they want to do instead of climbing up the ladder as it exists and looking at your neighbors. Their ethics and sense of social responsibility has to be nurtured…We are not a very religious country. Traditionally, ethics and responsibility to society was conveyed in the family context.

Harbus: What could students here learn by going to Japan?

MM: They would gain a broader perspective of your own country.

Harbus: How much time do you spend in Japan these days?

MM: I spend about 100 days out of Japan [each year].

Harbus: How much time do you have for fun?

MM: I hope to be able to allocate time for more fun. While I was here [for the Alumni Achievement Awards] I went up to Maine to see my college roommate and other college friends. We recently celebrated our 50th reunion at Harvard College.

Harbus: Thank you for your time, and congratulations on a well-deserved award.

October 25, 2004
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