It’s been a bumpy ride

It’s been a bumpy ride
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First Published: Sat, Jul 28 2007. 01 14 AM IST

Updated: Sat, Jul 28 2007. 01 14 AM IST
Tomotaka Ishikawa’s first question to me is: “Is there a dress code for this? I hope you don’t mind—I’ll be in casuals on Friday.” I reassure him. His dress works with my habit of dressing down on Fridays, and this is all about unwinding, after all.
As I wait in the lobby of The Imperial hotel on New Delhi’s Janpath, the 56-year-old managing director of Yamaha Motor India Pvt. Ltd, walks down the corridor and jeans to jeans, shirt to shirt, I suddenly feel terribly un-hip. Ishikawa’s pale blue distressed jeans, a pink Polo Ralph Lauren shirt and leather golf shoes with noiseless rubber soles smack of carefully cultivated casual ease. But it is not the only thing that sets Ishikawa apart.
Yamaha’s turnaround man, who moved to India a year ago, can pack in a few lines of Hindi, talk with amazing ease in English, throw American terms at you at dizzying speed and drive his bikes at 150kmph.
Ishikawa will also tell you that he has spent 20 years away from Japan, where he was born and raised, and that probably explains why he thinks he is “not Japanese”.
We settle in with our Cabernet Sauvignons and the vignettes unravel.
Ishikawa, who started with Yamaha in 1974, is among the few executives in the industry to have stuck it out with one company. And while his early overseas stints were riddled with several bumpy spots, it also taught him the lessons that helped shape his success.
He recalls his first meeting in the US—an advertising and marketing strategy pitch. At the end of the session when his boss asked him if he understood all of it, he was forced to candidly admit “No, not one bit.” To which his boss responded that Ishikawa would soon have to go home.
In the six months that followed, the young executive wrote down 30 words of English that he did not understand each day, and tried to remember the meanings he looked up.
“Three months later, I knew 600 words by heart, and suddenly I started to understand what people were saying.” Ishikawa got to stay on in the US.
“It was 1980—the year of the famous Yamaha-Honda war and I was assisting in that war,” he says with the aplomb of a Hollywood scriptwriter. “We thought we could beat Honda but we got defeated.’’ The battle for leadership, now the stuff of management case studies, left Yamaha beaten and bruised after market leader Honda flooded the market with more models than its rival could cope with. Yamaha, in turn, faced debt and inventory pile-up, something Ishikawa learnt to loathe.
“I learnt a few lessons then—strategy is very important and you really need to think things through. We underestimated the competition. The market leader has power. To beat them and retain the number one spot, you need to have equal power.”
Ishikawa’s real break came in his next assignment—selling snowmobiles, in an American market where a few seasons of low snowfall had slowed sales. Ishikawa gambled. He tied up with an insurance company to offer a plan which would give customers a small discount on their purchases if there was no snow that season. Called the “No snow’’ guarantee, it cost him $1 million (about Rs4 crore) at the time, and earned him the moniker of “scary kid” at the firm’s Japan headquarters. His seniors baulked and told him the cost was ridiculously high. But it worked.
“I came from motorcycles beaten pretty bad and became the top seller of snowmobiles,” says Ishikawa. In less than a year, he had captured half the market from a mere 35% and Yamaha gained and ruled the top spot for a decade.
In the years that followed, Ishikawa turned in more successes for Yamaha. He revived the motorcycle business in the US by introducing merchandising and extending warranties, and told the staff the only way to survive was not to meet customer expectations, but to exceed them. Soon, the Yamaha management moved him back to Japan and asked him to take up product planning in Asia, moving him from sales.
“I was complaining too loudly about sales, so they said, okay, do planning,” he says with aggressive gestures which are clearly more American than Japanese.
Moving back to Asia, he realized all Yamaha was doing was following the leader Honda for its product line-up.
“When your power is less than a third, there is no way you can beat the leader—it’s in all the (strategy) books. Please read the books, I told my people. Let’s find the place where no one is there.”
After months of research, the Yamaha team discovered that mopeds dominated two-wheeler recall in Asia but there was no gear-less, automatic-drive moped in the market. Ishikawa spotted an opportunity and bundled off his plans to management who promptly trussed it back at him, saying the plan could fly only if he found a way to cut the investment on the technology and product by half. Yamaha had no loose change for fancy plans.
More research followed, and Ishikawa discovered that all the three factories in Asia—Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia—were duplicating products. He set them a new paradigm—each unit should make the parts it could make cheapest and pool resources. That freed them to make the automatic mopeds at half the investment.
Yamaha dominates the space for automatic mopeds in Asia.
Ishikawa’s latest assignment in India is no less challenging. He has inherited a loss-making unit, a stodgy and bloated workers’ union and a marketplace where he is a distant number five. Yamaha’s product line just does not match up, and he calls it “shabby”. He has given himself two years to change all that. “I will turn it around,” he says “Watch me.” The determination shows. Ishikawa stays by himself and says he has asked his wife and children to avoid visiting him. While they stayed with him during all his previous assignments and he believes “a family should be together”, this time it is an exception, in part driven by his three grown-up sons being in different parts of the world and his wife’s ill health. He has told them he wants no distractions now and the only trip they should make to India is at the end of his tenure here.
Ishikawa, who met his wife while he was at Yamaha, says for all his candidness, he was a shy fiancé and the match was arranged by his wife’s parents. His sons, ages 25, 21 and 17, he complains like all parents who fret about their children, do not study.
“I tell them, please do it because I cannot be responsible for you—all your life is yours, not mine.”
In between playing the electric guitar, singing Japanese folk songs and playing golf, his dominating principle in life and work is the samurai way, or bushido, loosely akin to the European concept of chivalry.
I try to imagine that about Ishikawa and suddenly his passion for perfection seems to make perfect sense. As we wind down on our second drink of the evening, the abiding picture I leave with is the caricature that I spotted, in an earlier meeting, on his office wall. It says: “Screw it. Do it, Ishikawa”. It echoes the nonchalance and fearless candour at the heart of his personality .  
CURRICULUM VITAE
Name: Tomotaka (Tom) Ishikawa
Born:1 August 1950, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan
Education: BA (Economics), Hiroshima University, Japan
Work Profile: Ishikawa has worked in Japan with Yamaha Motor Co. for more than 25 years in various posts such as manager, business and product planning, vice-president, sales and marketing, head of Asian operations, and is currently the managing director of Yamaha Motor India Pvt. Ltd.
Interests: Golf, playing the electric guitar, biking and reading
Motto: Enjoy business even under tough conditions
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First Published: Sat, Jul 28 2007. 01 14 AM IST
More Topics: Yamaha motors | Ishikawa | Two-wheelers | Lounge |