Yoshiaki Fujimori, president and CEO of Lixil Group Corp., believes a true leader must carry out two main tasks: implement innovative changes and educate the next generation.
His belief is heavily influenced by his former boss Jack Welch, one of America’s legendary business executives who led General Electric Co. between 1981 and 2001.
A graduate of University of Tokyo’s engineering department, Fujimori started his career in 1975 working for Nissho Iwai Corp., a trading house, which later became Sojitz Corp. He joined General Electric Japan at age 35 and became the first Asian to take a senior vice presidency position at GE headquarters in 2001.
“What I learned from Welch was that we must continue carrying out innovative changes. Once we become satisfied and stop innovating, we will cease to grow and soon we’ll start falling,” Fujimori said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
After working with GE for 25 years, Fujimori decided to return to Japan to join Lixil in 2011. His decision came after Yoichiro Ushioda, a member of the founding family, asked him to take over the helm of the company. Since then, Fujimori has implemented bold reforms to transform what he calls a “super domestic company” into a truly global one.
Lixil, a major Japanese maker of metal building materials and plumbing fixtures, has grown rapidly with major expansions abroad through M&A activity in the past few years.
The company made American Standard Brands, a major American kitchen and bathroom fixture company, a wholly owned subsidiary in 2013. It also acquired an 87.5 percent stake, together with the Development Bank of Japan Inc., of Germany’s GROHE Group, one of the world’s leaders in luxury bathroom and kitchen fittings, earlier this year.
Lixil Group’s sales have risen to more than ¥1.62 trillion in the business year ending in March 2014, up from ¥1.21 trillion at the end of March 2011.
“If you want to change society, you must change your company. If you want to change your company, you must change yourself. Unless you can change and reform yourself, you’ll never be able to reform your company,” said the 63-year-old president.
As an active international businessperson, Fujimori is one of several Japanese corporate executives who have become regulars at the Davos conference hosted by the World Economic Forum based in Geneva, Switzerland, in recent years. The Davos conference brings together top political, business and academic leaders every January to discuss global issues ranging from the economy to the environment to politics.
Comparing Japanese firms to foreign companies, Fujimori said there is a stark difference in their corporate cultures.
“Japanese companies don’t value diversity. It’s not a pillar of Japanese companies. But at GE, I found an environment where I can compete freely regardless of nationality and skin color,” he said. “Lixil has the three basic principles: diversity, equal opportunity and meritocracy.”
Fujimori, who will also attend the upcoming Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2014, dubbed “Summer Davos” in Tianjin, China, laments that Japan lags behind emerging Asian countries, such as China and Singapore, in terms of adopting those principles.
“Unless those three principals are rooted in our company, we will never be a global company, and foreigners who come to work for us will not truly be part of our company.”
With a smile, he said he is implementing reforms at his company at a much faster pace than Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s national reforms. Under his growth strategies, better known as “Abenomics,” the prime minister has pledged to raise the proportion of women in leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020 and deregulate politically sensitive industries.
Lixil Group, according to Fujimori, is moving forward to be more diverse by introducing further numerical targets. For example, 30 percent of new employees should be women and 30 percent of those who got promoted should be women. He also said that one of its 15 executive operating officers is a woman.
“If we continue this way, we’ll be able to hit the 30 percent goal,” he said.
Welcoming Abe’s vow to become the “drill bit” to break through the “solid rock” of vested interests blocking reform,” Fujimori said Japan, which played leadership musical chairs for a long time, now has a better leader who can show direction for the future.
But Fujimori feels the Abe government still needs to hammer out comprehensive measures to tackle issues involving people, such as nurturing globally competitive Japanese and dealing with the declining population.
“Japan doesn’t have an environment which can produce globally competitive people,” he said.
Recalling when he first moved to GE in his 30s, Fujimori said he was full of confidence that he would win over his American colleagues because U.S. companies offer equal opportunities to people from different countries to work without discrimination.
“But on my very first day, I felt there was something I lacked. That was leadership. In school or at work in Japan, I never had a chance to think about leadership and never received leadership education,” said Fujimori, who received his MBA from Carnegie Mellon University in 1981.
That came as a shock to Fujimori and, after realizing his shortcomings, he embarked on a journey to improve himself to become a better leader, he said.
“Unless you start thinking about leadership and try to gain the necessary qualities as a leader, you can never grow as a better leader,” he said. “I also realized that was what Japanese people lacked. So, providing leadership education will enable Japanese people to be more competitive in the global market.”
Just like Darwin’s theory of evolution, Fujimori is convinced that those who will survive in a rapidly changing world are the ones who can adapt themselves to a new environment.
“We need to think about how to survive 30 years and 50 years down the road. What do we currently need to do to survive in the future?” he asked.
According to Fujimori, what Japan should do now is to declare it will become a truly bilingual nation in 30 years. Despite long years of English education, not many Japanese feel comfortable communicating in English.
“It’s not just a matter of people being able to speak English or English education being introduced at schools,” he said.
“A bilingual nation means a bilingual brain. A bilingual brain means a bicultural brain. If Japan can nurture such people, those people will actively speak about Japan in the international community. If there is such a group of people at Davos and in the world, they will definitely help boost Japan’s presence,” he said. “I’m sure those people will become an engine to change Japan.”