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Japanese Manager, Global Perspective

Japanese Manager, Global Perspective

Every weekday morning, weather permitting, Kiyoyuki Tsujimura pedals his bicycle to the station where he boards one of Tokyo's notoriously congested commuter trains to make the journey into the heart of the city.

It's a punishing regime but one that serves the 51-year-old businessman well. As head of NTT DoCoMo's global business department, Tsujimura is responsible for the mobile phone operator's overseas investments. Last year he led the company's investments in no fewer than five companies across the world.

While the cost of those investments, Y1,800bn ($15 billion), was unprecedented for a Japanese company, so was the speed with which they were completed: eight months. In less than a year, DoCoMo was transformed into a multinational corporation.

Japan's prolonged slump has shattered the myth of the superiority of Japanese management. But companies such as DoCoMo and businessmen such as Tsujimura offer a flicker of hope that a new business culture may be emerging out of the debris.

At first glance, Kiyoyuki Tsujimura hardly appears a paragon of a new corporate Japan. After attending an elite high school and university, he joined NTT, a bastion of traditional Japan. His nondescript blue suits, thick glasses, and slicked hair, parted to the side in a style known as 70-30, are typical of corporate Japan.

But since his appointment as head of global operations, Tsujimura has impressed the worlds of business and banking with a rigorous approach to the job and the kind of international perspective that is found all too rarely among Japanese managers.

"He is very un-Japanese in the sense that he is objective-focused," says one western investment banker. "It's hard to find anyone in Japan as aggressive and professional," comments a business partner.

When DoCoMo was negotiating a strategic alliance with AOL, Tsujimura impressed his American counterparts with a steely resolve to get on with the job. During one meeting, as participants were waxing lyrical about the synergies between the two companies, AOL managers were surprised when he abruptly asked, "So what do we do next?"

"Even a company that moves as quickly as AOL found that there were times when DoCoMo seemed impatient," says John Barber, managing director of AOL Japan. "They are a very fast-moving company."

It helps, in dealing with foreign companies, that Tsujimura has an easy command of English and an MBA from MIT. He exhibits little of the vulnerability many Japanese suffer from when they are dealing with westerners.

"What makes him different is that he can control a meeting in English and is upfront about what he wants to get out of it," says one banker. Surprisingly, perhaps, this is not a common trait in an island nation dependent for much of its economic growth on exporting manufactured goods.

Even 12 years of compulsory schooling in the English language leaves many Japanese businessmen struggling to communicate in the language of global business. And while brands such as Sony and Honda have become household names in the West, the vast majority of Japanese corporations, particularly in the services sector, remain inward-looking.

By all accounts Tsujimura is a committed internationalist who has a reputation for almost single-handedly managing overseas investor relations. "He is one of a handful of people within DoCoMo who understand the importance of growing globally," says a Japanese banker familiar with the company. "Many others in the company are really stuck with domestic targets but Tsujimura has a very clear vision of DoCoMo's international strategy."

A global perspective does not in itself guarantee success overseas, of course. And DoCoMo's management has been derided for its insistence on taking minority investments in its partners.

But Tsujimura is unrepentant. "Is it necessary to spend a lot of money to buy a partner?" he asks in reference to Vodafone's purchase of Mannesmann and Deutsche Telekom's acquisition of VoiceStream, which DoCoMo had also been looking at.

"Unless they can create new value it makes no difference to their investors to hold shares in the two companies together. I have studied many books and analysts' reports. Until we can have the confidence to achieve sufficient returns we shouldn't acquire an overseas company. I don't think we should damage our balance sheet unnecessarily."

Such assertiveness, which would hardly raise an eyebrow in the West, can come across as aggressive in Japan. Tsujimura has his detractors, who cringe at what they consider an autocratic style; but attitudes are changing, particularly among younger Japanese.

For, although he is said to inspire fear in some of his staff and they complain that Tsujimura is difficult to work for, as one colleague says: "They all want to be like him."

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