Q&A: Honda Appoints New President

Feb 26, 2009
Kenichi Takata and Yutaka Chikaoka, Nikkei Monozukuri
Takanobu Ito, who was unofficially appointed as Honda's new president (left), and Takeo Fukui, who will become advisor (right)
Takanobu Ito, who was unofficially appointed as Honda's new president (left), and Takeo Fukui, who will become advisor (right)
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Honda Motor Co Ltd answered questions on its unofficial appointment of the new president at a press conference Feb 23, 2009. The respondents were Takanobu Ito, who was informally chosen to be the next president, and Takeo Fukui, who will retire from his current position of president and become advisor.

Q: When did you offer Ito the promotion to president? How did you speak to him about it?

Fukui: I thought a lot about when would be the best timing. Considering it might be better if he could take his time and think about it during the new-year holidays, I sounded him out about the appointment just before the holidays. I said to him, "It's about time to replace our president."

Q: Ito will also serve as president of Honda R&D Co Ltd (Honda's R&D subsidiary). What is the aim of that?

Fukui: I believe it is better for Honda in the long term if Honda R&D and Honda operate independently from each other. To ride out the current bleak situation or the next couple of years at any cost, however, timely business decisions and compact management are very important. For these reasons, we decided to appoint Ito as president of the two companies this time.

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge you face as the new president?

Ito: I think it's how quickly we introduce the products and technologies that customers are after. The (hybrid) "Insight," which we launched recently, is becoming very popular, but it has always been Honda's specialty to provide quality cars with good fuel efficiency and environmental performance at a reasonable price.

Honda won't deviate from this path, I believe. My biggest duty is to do everything I can to fortify and accelerate our move in that direction.

Q: Weren't you concerned about the replacement of the president during an economic crisis like the one we are now in?

Fukui: We were not expecting severe circumstances in and after November 2008 when we considered replacing the president. In other words, we had already decided our course to a certain degree before then.

To be honest, I hesitated. (However,) we concluded that the timing was right, taking into consideration the acceleration and the growth that will come about after riding out this bleak time, also considering the fact that we had reexamined our course again and again.

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Q: Why did you decide to join Honda?

Ito: I was studying airplanes when I was a student. I visited various companies with my friends for some time. At that time, Honda's headquarters was in Harajuku, where I talked with its personnel representative over a cup of tea.

"Our company might build airplanes as well," he said. I had been interested in Honda as a motorcycle lover. "(Moreover,) I might be able to be engaged in airplane development. No company could be better," I thought and that was how I ended up joining Honda.

Q: What kind of company do you want to transform Honda into?

Ito: It's difficult to say for how long into the future I will be responsible for the company, but in my opinion, Honda is an exciting company from the start. (We hear that people think) products from Honda are interesting. Honda has the expression (as "its creed") "Joy of Buying, Joy of Selling, Joy of Creation," which is exactly what I am aiming to realize.

(Our customers feel,) "I'm really glad I did. It is fun," buying a Honda product. Selling such products brings us joy. Also, it's truly exciting to develop and produce such products. A company that creates such circles of joy is ideal, I think.

Q: Where do you think Honda is currently coming up short?

Ito: I think Honda slightly lacks energy to address that creed (the Three Joys). We must return to the Three Joys once again, inspire motivation and strive for success while encouraging ourselves with "That's what we are seeking, let's enjoy working together."

Q: On the contrary, what are Honda's advantages, areas in which Honda is second to none?

Ito: It's a tough question, but, like Mr. Fukui, no one behaves arrogantly at Honda. Even the president remains close to field. Honda's advantage lies in the fact that everyone loves manufacturing, not in its hierarchy. Honda's absolute superiority lies in the fact that it has a climate and a culture where we can all approach fields and share opinions.

Q: Why did you appoint Senior Managing Director Ito as the next president?

Fukui: Honda's president must love cars and motorcycles after all. That's one. Another is the mind that values fields. Physical and mental vitality is also an essential ingredient for the president. Also, Ito has the ability to quickly take action and make decisions.

Q: How do you describe Mr Ito in a word?

Fukui: Tough.

Q: What was your impression when you were offered the position?

Ito: About 47% of me felt "very honored" and the remaining 53% felt "Oh my gosh, this will be tough." However, after carefully considering it, I replied (to Mr. Fukui) that I was eager to assume the position as the job would be worth the challenge.

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Q: What was the main reason why you decided to replace your own position?

Fukui: Because it's very important to renew the generation of internal people, especially top management, to make a company last forever. I have served as president for six years as a result, but I do believe shifting the management generation every several years is really important for a company's perpetuity.

Q: What was your biggest joy while you were president? And what was the biggest decision you made during that time?

Fukui: What was impressive recently is the presentation of the (hybrid) "Insight." I have attended quite a few new car presentations over the last six years, but no other presentation drew as much interest from the media.

It might be something different from "joy," but the presentation was impressive anyway. I am reconfirming that it is important for us to aim to have such presentations every year as if releasing the second and third arrows, so things just don't end with the Insight.

I have made a variety of major decisions as well. Entering a new business such as the "HondaJet" (small jet plane) is also a major decision, but among those I made recently, I say the withdrawal from the Formula One was it.

Q: If you were to name one thing, what have you failed to accomplish as president?

Fukui: It's difficult because I have left so many things undone or unfinished. For example, although I have continuously tried to "make a Super Cub that goes beyond the Super Cub," I failed. But this might be a perpetual challenge.

Q: What do you aim to change as the new president?

Ito: I am not aiming at change just for change's sake. Honda has originally been sensitive to trends, being good at quickly returning its joy to its customers by taking speedy action. If I were to guess, I would say that the current Honda is slightly slow in that aspect, I suppose. That can probably be seen in technology development and in various connections within the organization as well.

At a time of such a drastic changes (in the economic environment), perpetuity can only be expected for companies that can take action ahead of such changes. In that sense, I hope I can develop Honda to a company that is sensitive and active at the same time.

Q: The state of the Japanese automobile market is very severe right now. Will you describe the image of an attractive car that you want to launch in the future?

Ito: I don't think the Japanese market is slightly stagnant because customers are not demanding cars. In my opinion, manufacturers that fail to provide cars that make customers "feel like buying" are quite responsible for the situation.

Regardless of whether it is possible or not, it's important to add new discoveries such as a car that achieves not twice but three times better fuel efficiency, for example, or a small vehicle that can carry 10 to 20 passengers, to the "fixed form" of current automobiles.

In that sense, the automobile industry might have thus far been on a slightly easy cycle, in which "normal cars" could sell, I guess. It is crucial to study what customers are seeking with sincerity again.

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Q: Hit by the simultaneous economic slowdown all over the world, do you have any restructuring measures for the future?

Ito: I am aware that we are facing a serious time, which is said to come only "once in a hundred years." I hope there will be even a slightest sign of recovery in the market during the second half of next fiscal year, but I am seeing the situation as so serious that our company would turn over if I just depended on that hope.

Accordingly, I'm feeling that I must consider a variety of "actions," including the integration and selection of management resources.

Q: How are you planning to tackle the employment issue from now?

Ito: Employment is a tough issue, but I am aiming at running the company based on my acknowledgement that a company's theoretical duties are to properly pay taxes and to ensure employment.

Q: What will Honda's relationship with motor sports be from now on?

Ito: I think it's very regrettable that our relevant activities are slightly shrinking (as evidenced by the withdrawal from the Formula One). As an entity engaged in mobility, race activities are very challenging and must be fun at the same time. Unfortunately, we are suffering from a slight cold in terms of corporate stamina and I'm hoping that we can vigorously push forward with joy again, fully recovering from that cold as quickly as possible.