People | The Big Questions

MetLife Insurance K.K.’s Sachin N. Shah zeroes in on Japan’s growth potential

Hands-on leadership, empathy buoy chairman

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

Name: Sachin N. Shah
Title: Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of MetLife Insurance K.K. (since August 2013)
URL: www.metlife.co.jp/
DOB: Aug. 28, 1967
Hometown: North Bergen, New Jersey
Years in Japan: 7


Sachin N. Shah’s love for Japan began with a Toyota Tercel, his first car after he moved from India to an American-Italian neighborhood in the United States in the 1970s.

Being a rare first-generation Indian immigrant family in North Bergen, New Jersey, Shah, President and CEO of MetLife Insurance K.K., said during a recent interview with The Japan Times: “We didn’t have a lot of money. Japanese cars were generally cheaper and better. So my first car was Toyota for that reason.”

Soon, he was fascinated by the high quality of the made-in-Japan vehicle, prompting him to become one proud owner of the Japanese car while tense trade friction existed between Japan and the U.S. and having non-American cars was deemed “being un-American.”

“Japan was building very cool cars. Fast cars. But also very affordable, creating opportunities for people to have cars that, up until that time, was much harder to do if you were just buying an American car,” he said.

Shah’s positive images toward Japan continued after he actually arrived in the country in 2011, when he was assigned the role as chief operating officer for the Japan branch of the U.S. insurance giant that marks its 150th anniversary this year.

And, after seven years, Shah, who was recently appointed president of American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, believes Japan hasn’t lost its luster.

“When people think about Japan right now, everybody has a little bit more of a negative view than a positive view (due to the) declining population and declining economy. And you have all these projections or forecasts of 20 years from now or 30 years from now and everything is going down,” he said.

“(But) my message to American companies is that there are definitely growth opportunities here,” he said.

“My view is that, if Japan can continue to make the changes that are required, there is a more of a positive scenario there, a scenario in which Japan does grow even if population is declining,” he said.

Taking the helm of arguably the most influential foreign business lobbying body in Japan, Shah said the U.S.-Japan relationship today is “more important to both sides than ever before” as not only does Japan still remain as the largest non-U.S. market for many of more than 1,000 ACCJ member companies — more than 100 of them are in the Fortune 500 — but Japan is also a “key anchor” to the Indo-Pacific strategy advocated by both parties.

“We want to unlock Japan’s growth potential. I think everybody who is here in Japan today knows there is growth potential. We want to help unlock it. And that, to me, will be a great success for everybody,” he said.

One area that Japan can make a change is to activate the total of over ¥1.4 quadrillion in savings sitting in bank accounts, “earning zero” amid the Bank of Japan’s negative interest rates policy, he said.

As the president of a major insurance company in Japan, Shah said the key is to change Japan’s rougo, or life after retirement, which often comes with negative images surrounding concerns for money and health — unlike in the U.S. where the years after retirement are often longed for as the “golden years” of life.

“While there is population decline, there is also longevity. And longevity creates opportunity. Population decline is a challenge, but the longevity is an opportunity,” he said.

“I don’t look at challenges as problems. I look at challenges as opportunities. Because if you can find a solution to a challenge, there is an opportunity,” he said.

What underlies Shah’s positive view toward Japan’s future is his love and respect for the Japanese culture.

In Japan, “pride in what they do is so high. And the focus on your experience is so high,” he said, citing his experience at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo’s Azabu area where sushi master treats customers with his warmest hospitality. “The more you go, the more he watches how you eat and what you eat and what you don’t eat. And the next time you go he only gives you what you like. It is unique, and it really is Japan. You cannot describe that to somebody. You have to come experience it.”

Shah also spends time studying Japanese language “not so that one can speak it perfectly, but because one can then better appreciate the culture and some of the challenges between communications there,” he said.

His open-minded, forward-looking attitude about learning different cultures can be traced back to his cross-cultural experience spending his childhood being different from others in the American-Italian neighborhood.

“Because we were the only Indian family in the neighborhood for many years, you had to learn to make relationships and do things with people that were different,” he said, adding that he successfully assimilated by playing popular American sports such as baseball, which he played for 16 years through college, American football and basketball.

“But I also have a tremendous connection to India and regularly go there; I feel very Indian also,” he said, thanks to his parents who let him go to India every summer.

“I think with an open mind, there are a lot of advantages,” he said. “It doesn’t matter which country you are from or what language you speak or what company you went to or what school you went to. Those are not important things. Everybody has good ideas you can learn from.”

Now, at the age of 50, Shah’s childhood memories of a Toyota still live in his mind — as he takes on genba shugi, or Toyota Motor Corp.’s business philosophy that advocates respecting a hands-on approach rather than top-down management practiced without looking at the floor where the actual work is happening, as his personal motto.

“The real action is in the field, or the real action is outside the house. And you have to go to the real action to truly learn and truly understand,” he said.


Nearly 20 years of corporate excellence

Sachin N. Shah has been the chairman, president and chief executive officer of MetLife Insurance K.K. since Aug. 1, 2013. He was also appointed as the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan this year. Before his assignments in Japan, Shah has led many significant projects for the U.S.-based insurance giant, including being the global leader for the integration of Alico into MetLife until closing of the transaction in November 2010. Shah joined MetLife Inc. in 1999 as a vice president in the company’s U.S. institutional business. Before that, Shah has held managerial positions in the financial sector.

Shah received a master’s degree in technology and business management and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.

The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.