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Diagrams help equity investment pro when words get jumbled

by Tomoko Otake

Where there is a diagram, there is a way.

Shunichi Maeda, senior executive at Lehman Brothers Japan, has a habit of turning everything into a diagram — from multiparty contracts he signs to the books he reads and the lectures on acquisitions that he gives.

In one lecture he gave on private equity investment in January 2003, for instance, he showed diagram after diagram to explain the investment mechanism.

One chart, which he says is relatively simple, explains — with abundant arrows and boxes — the roles played by each participant in the private equity business, including investors, consultants, funds and fund managers.

The longtime habit has helped him digest and explain complicated concepts. It has also made communicating in English easier for him.

“English is a logical language,” he says. “Diagrams get your thoughts organized, and let you think logically.”

Maeda, 58, joined major trader Mitsubishi Corp. in 1969 and rose through the corporate ranks over 34 years. Nearly 18 years were spent in the United States.

Through his years at the trading house and at MC Financial Services Ltd., its U.S.-based investment banking arm, Maeda has earned a reputation in Japan as a pioneer in the field of private equity investment, sitting in on numerous buyout and venture investment deals.

Maeda helped introduce U.S. private equity fund Ripplewood Holdings LLC to Japanese sources. Ripplewood bought the failed Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan in 2000, then made a successful exit through the February listing of the firm’s reincarnation, Shinsei Bank, on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

Maeda quit Mitsubishi Corp. last April, and took up his current position at Lehman in November to advise on investment banking business.

Maeda says his corporate-sponsored MBA education at Columbia University in New York in the late 1970s heavily influenced his way of thinking and communication.

While studying with the best and brightest from around the world, he learned that, to be a successful communicator, one need not just have language skills but a wealth of expertise.

“There are times when I misunderstand even what Japanese people are saying,” he says. “Unless you have a lot of knowledge of the subject matter, you won’t be able to understand.”

Instead of obsessing over a word-by-word translation, it’s better to try to understand the context of a conversation in a foreign language, Maeda says, citing his own experience of translating nearly 20 English-language books, mostly business nonfiction, into Japanese. When he came across a word or phrase he could not understand, Maeda asked his native English-speaking friends for help. They were often unable to come up with an answer on the spot, but eventually did after reading a few pages.

When making deals, mistakes in hearing numbers can end in disaster. Yet there are times when Maeda has difficulty distinguishing “14″ from “40,” or “15″ from “50.” Maeda makes sure he scribbles any number he hears and checks with the person who said it.

“The worst thing you can do is pretend to know what’s going on and, after the meeting, to be left wondering, ‘What the hell happened?’ ” Maeda says. “In business conversations, I take extra care to mobilize my hands, not just my mouth.”