On a certain Friday every month, in the heart of Japan’s business district and in sight of the Imperial Palace, an elite group gathers for Japan’s most famous corporate meeting.
Around the table, as they have done for decades, sit some of the nation’s most powerful chief executives: leaders of the biggest bank, the biggest commodities trader and one of the largest arms makers, along with manufacturers of everything from cars and air conditioners to nuclear reactors and space rockets. Its members are diverse, but are unified by a single name: Mitsubishi — once the most formidable of Japan’s conglomerates, until it was dismantled after the second world war to curtail that power.
Its Friday Club meetings, an open secret but a strictly behind-closed-doors affair, have felt like one of the great enduring certainties of corporate Japan. But even they, admits Takehiko Kakiuchi, the 65-year-old chief executive of Mitsubishi Corporation and the central member of the club, have been suspended in recent months by a continuing rise in Covid-19 infections.
But what remains unchanged in these strange times, he says, is the supreme value that his group puts on information. Mr Kakiuchi’s company, with $5bn in annual profits, is the biggest and most prestigious of the sogo shosha, or general trading houses, that have played a pivotal part in Japan’s postwar economic growth by helping the resource-poor nation secure everything from Australian iron ore and Chilean copper to US soyabeans.
In their role importing raw materials and helping Japanese corporations do business overseas, Mitsubishi and its rivals have built an extensive intelligence network and worldwide presence akin to a country’s foreign ministry.
“We know each country’s situation to the extent that there is not a single country Mitsubishi is not familiar with,” Mr Kakiuchi says in a face-to-face interview at its Tokyo headquarters, pointing to the group’s 1,700 subsidiaries and affiliates stationed globally.
Mitsubishi’s acute antenna for international politics is in greater need, says Mr Kakiuchi, as Japanese companies try to navigate the post-Covid geopolitical landscape that has been upended by the US-China dispute and unrest in Hong Kong.
“You have to be a very international company to catch all the global developments that are changing by the second,” he says. “We are working with various companies on where we want to take risks together, which country we should take manufacturing operations to, and what kind of demand we should focus on capturing.”
Like most Japanese companies, Mitsubishi relocates its staff around the country and internationally at the start of the financial year in April, but global lockdowns and travel bans have made those transfers difficult this year.
Still, to ensure that Covid-19 would not curtail the group’s ability to gather intelligence, Mr Kakiuchi says he made sure — even with delays caused by a two-week quarantine — that top-level personnel changes were executed in the two markets he sees as core to managing post-Covid risks: the US and China.
The divide between the world’s two largest economies has sharpened in recent months as western nations clash with China over everything from the pandemic’s handling to technology dominance and the status of Hong Kong.
“Countries influenced by China are going to find themselves caught in the wake of the US-China power struggle,” Mr Kakiuchi says. “We have a long history of doing business with partners all over the world, so our best way forward will be to stay as flexible as possible and adapt as needed.”
The coronavirus crisis is not the first time the group’s nimbleness has been tested.
When Mr Kakiuchi took over as president in 2016, the company had just reported its first ever annual loss as its bet on Chilean copper collapsed during the global commodities rout. The biggest humiliation was handing over Mitsubishi’s number one position to smaller rival Itochu, which had managed to remain profitable during the 2016 crisis.
Mitsubishi returned to its top position a year later, with Mr Kakiuchi vowing never to surrender its top spot again.
But in the four years that followed, the CEO has taken steps to reduce the group’s heavy reliance on its resource business, setting a 30 per cent cap on assets within its portfolio that are vulnerable to commodity prices.
Three questions for Takehiko Kakiuchi
What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?
When I was a new employee working in the trading division four decades ago, we used to buy raw materials from overseas and we would sell them to wholesalers and dealers to get quick returns. But my team leader at the time pushed for us to sell directly to where there was actual demand, which was quite difficult back then. I learnt how that is the way to learn the needs of actual users, and it connects to what we’re currently trying to do with our digital efforts in connecting with consumers. That is where my starting point is.
Who is your leadership hero?
I hesitate to give an actual name. But one of my favourite words in Japanese is shisei, which is best translated as “sincerity” or “devotion”. It comes from one of the famous teachings of Yoshida Shoin, who was an influential scholar and philosopher during the final years of the Tokugawa s hogunate (late 1850s). Basically it means that if you are devoted and sincere in all that you do, none will turn away when you need them most.
If you were not a CEO, what would you be?
When I was in university, I was very passionate about Japanese archery and I somehow ended up working at Mitsubishi. But once I joined, Mitsubishi became my passion. I don’t think I have any special talent, but even if I had joined a company other than Mitsubishi, I probably would have worked very hard and put my heart into the company wherever that may have been.
Similar to a broader shift within the industry that has steadily turned trading houses into private equity-like investment groups, the company has strengthened its focus on absorbing digital technologies and entering services that are closer to consumer markets.
Late last year, Mitsubishi and telecoms group NTT agreed to take a 30 per cent stake in Here Technologies, a digital map provider for self-driving cars. In March, a Mitsubishi-led consortium completed its €4.1bn acquisition of Dutch utility Eneco, known for its focus on low-carbon energy projects and its range of home energy services from thermostats to electric car-charging devices.
Despite the transition, the company is expected to be hit hard by the pandemic, especially with its negative impact on prices of crude oil and metallurgical coal, as well as sales of cars and steel products. While Mitsubishi has yet to release its guidance for the year ending in March 2021, brokerage Nomura already expects Itochu to overtake its rival in terms of net profit.
Still, Mr Kakiuchi says coronavirus has also created opportunities, especially as companies in Japan realise that their analogue way of doing business no longer works in the new era of lockdowns, remote working and virtual meetings with clients.
“Covid-19 has forced us to reflect on our traditional business practices and start looking at ways to take better advantage of digitisation,” he says.
The transition also means that Mr Kakiuchi’s expectations will be higher for the group’s 86,000 employees.
When asked what kind of qualities he looks for in new employees, the CEO, known for his serious and straightforward disposition, sets out a long and ambitious list. They need to be good judges of character; able to gather and analyse information; and willing to come up with their own ideas while having the leadership skills and charisma to attract people.
“They will need to think and act for themselves,” Mr Kakiuchi says.