One mission: multiple roles

One mission: multiple roles

I’m currently on secondment as general manager at Gestamp Hot Stamping Japan, which is part of one of the world’s biggest auto component makers. Overseeing the construction and the start of production at the first Japanese plant is my mission. I’m responsible for safety, quality control, personnel, administration, and finance.

My role was defined as helping to set up the factory and helping with sales to Japanese OEMs. Once things got started, though, I discovered that “help” was not quite the right word. Turned out that I was very much the key person. I mean, when I started the job in March 2017, I was actually the only person on the books. I was not so much wearing two or three management hats; it was more like five or ten!

I had to do a lot of things in parallel: preparing the site while getting the factory designed; finding suppliers—which wasn’t easy—while interviewing prospective hires in the evening. It was non-stop. I had to hit project milestones and do troubleshooting all at the same time. From early summer 2017, I got another couple of people on my team and was able to do some delegating.

I am a friend of the English guy who built out their manufacturing operations in China. He was sent there on his own ten or eleven years ago and grew the business from nothing. He likes to tease me, pointing out that unlike him in China, I at least have the advantage of knowing the local language!

When we held the opening ceremony for the factory in October 2018, I felt we’d done well to get so far. From design to completion, the whole thing took only 13 months. It was a tough schedule. We pulled it off partly because I’d been in charge of building a greenfield factory in Thailand in the early 2000s. I drew on all my previous experience.

Quite by coincidence, Gestamp decided to build a plant in Japan around the time when Mitsui took a stake in the company. Gestamp has every right to expect a lot from their partnership with Mitsui. I feel I was singled out for this job because of my experience. Was I lucky to be chosen, or was it “mission impossible”? Perhaps a bit of both...

Seriously though, I appreciate the support we’re getting not just from Mitsui, but from Mie Prefecture and Matsusaka City. The incentive package they provided has been a major positive. We’re the first overseas factory in the area—something which can be difficult. The first question companies I approach usually ask is “Who are you? And why should we trust you?” Whatever problems we encounter, teamwork is usually the best way to overcome them.

Iran made me pragmatic

As a rule, work never goes smoothly. You should expect the unexpected—and deal with it. I’m pretty pragmatic, I think. It’s a mindset I owe to my time in Iran. I was sent out to Tehran in November 1992. In the months before, while I was applying for my visa, the business environment in the country changed dramatically. When I got there, I couldn’t do any of the deals I’d been sent there to do. I had to rebuild the business from nothing.

Iran was a challenging place. There was no end of stumbling blocks: things like the phone service not working. I ended up exporting Iranian steel to China, but it wasn’t easy. I went and checked everything myself: the size of the steel sheets, the loading at the port, the ships. The business customs can be confusing too. There’s a face-saving culture, meaning that people don’t like to say no. This was the time I acquired the classic trading company skill of being able to make something of any situation, no matter how hopeless.

Looking further back, perhaps my can-do attitude dates back to my teenage years. In the early 1970s, Japan hosted the Winter Olympics. I became completely ski mad. When I reached high-school age, I got myself a part-time job in a ski resort and spent all my winter and spring vacations there. Whatever spare time I had, I spent skiing. From sixteen until my marriage eleven years later, I wasn’t home once for the New Year, because that’s the height of the ski season. I knew what I wanted to do and I figured out how to do it. That’s the way I’ve always operated.

I want people to be happy

I want people to be happy

What are my future goals? First off, I want us to achieve stable production at the Matsusaka plant, win more orders from Japanese OEMs, and maybe build a second plant nearby. Japan is like Germany: a high-cost center of manufacturing excellence. Gestamp expects a lot from us. I want our productivity and quality levels to be a benchmark for the company worldwide.

For myself, I’m pretty tough; I can bounce back from anything. What I really enjoy, though, is to see all the people who work for me looking happy. After all, I hired most of them!

Posted in February 2019

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