Isuzu importer bags U.K. woman’s award

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo News

LONDON (Kyodo) British businesswoman Nikki King knows all about male chauvinism, having overcome a ton of it while setting up a thriving firm importing Japanese trucks.

King, who has just won a top female business award in Britain, said she struggled to gain recognition from Japanese businessmen when she was first involved in setting up a joint venture with Isuzu Motors Ltd.

However, King said she soon overcame their initial surprise and wariness in dealing with a foreign businesswoman and is now treated as an equal.

Indeed, she believes her less confrontational qualities as a woman are actually far more appealing to Japanese businessmen, who are sometimes put off by aggressive stances taken by Western men during business negotiations.

King was instrumental in setting up Isuzu Truck UK Ltd. in 1995. The firm imports the vehicles into Britain and then distributes them to various dealerships across the country.

As a senior sales manager with the British firm that helped set up the joint venture, she was in the team that flew to Tokyo in the mid-1990s to establish the new firm.

But she found her Japanese hosts were “quite surprised” when they saw her and appeared to wonder what role she was going to play in the new business.

As evidence of the male bias and sense of humiliation she felt, King, 61, recalled, “I remember that the interpreter rarely interpreted what I said.”

But she gradually earned the respect of the Japanese after several visits.

On another occasion, King recalled being taken to a track outside Tokyo where they were testing Isuzu trucks. Her hosts suggested she might like to just watch the proceedings and have a drink of iced tea.

But King, managing director of the company following a management buyout in 2004, was having none of it. She clambered up into the cab of a 7.5-ton truck and took it for a spin. She next got behind the wheel of a 32-ton truck, much to the amazement and admiration of her Japanese counterparts.

After that episode, King said, she was taken more seriously and treated as one of the boys.

She also started to learn Japanese because she found that one of the main problems in the early days was communication.

King asked her teacher to teach her all the bad words in Japanese so she could really judge the mood of meetings.

To her amusement, she soon found she was being referred to by her Japanese colleagues as an “obatarian” — a composite of “obasan” meaning elderly aunt and “Otarian,” the name given to the son of Godzilla.

King, a mother of three, said, “In England it probably translates into battle-ax, and I wear that term with pride and my Japanese colleagues find it funny.” Now she is simply referred to as a “strange foreigner,” she said.

Perhaps it is because of her battle-ax qualities that King thrives in a male-dominated business. She said she was “thrilled” to have picked up a lifetime achievement award from the First Women Awards, an annual ceremony celebrating female pioneers in business and the removal of barriers to women.

In 2004, she led a management buyout of Isuzu UK Ltd., which had been growing at 10 percent to 15 percent per year until the recent downturn, with an annual turnover of around £35 million ($57 million).

Although her first few meetings in Japan were difficult, she said she was eventually accepted.

“My Japanese colleagues say they prefer dealing with me because I’m more gentle than a Western man, who tends to be more aggressive, and I don’t mind apologizing,” King said.

She also thinks the skills women learn in raising families can easily be adapted for use in running big companies.

King has developed an interest in Japan that goes beyond business matters, and she now has a Japanese garden at her home in rural southeast England and studies Japanese history and culture.

She is encouraged by the way Japanese women are starting to play more prominent roles in business, as evidenced by the fact that Isuzu has several senior female managers in Japan.

“It’s fantastic to see,” said King, who was distressed by the level that female talent was being wasted in corporations on her first visits to Japan.

King’s career only really started when she was 41. She had to go back to work after she and her husband separated and she had to support her family.

She started as an administrator and worked her way up to become a director at several Iveco Ford truck dealerships.

She then moved into a senior sales position at a national car dealership that entered into negotiations with Isuzu on establishing a British import business. It was while working there that she helped set up the joint venture and in 2004 she led a management buyout of the business.