Haelo Hosts Speakers Review: Michael Woodford MBE

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In it’s third year, Haelo’s annual conference will bring people together to challenge thinking and inspire actions. This conference will bring together those with a will to positively influence the delivery of public services, restore hope and become an agent for change.

Michael Woodford MBE embodies Daring Greatly. He rose through the ranks at Olympus to become the first non-Japanese CEO of the century-old company. After four months he was removed as CEO as recounted in Michael’s book Exposure, and the BBC documentary Full Exposure. The Olympus tale takes in the Yakuza, corporate secrecy, and Japanese concepts of loyalty and reputation. More generally it gets to the heart of what is and what isn’t ethical capitalism. Sir David Dalton introducing Michael Woodford MBE to the stage.

Michael begins by discussing his professional background, Olympus is one of the largest health care device manufacturer and for this reason is one of Japans biggest companies. He joined Olympus at 21 – first non Japanese president of Olympus a ‘salary man’ (white collar worker) in Japanese culture which is a lifetime career where loyalty and commitment is paramount. As the first ‘salary man’ from the west, he was a celebrity. Michael spoke extensively about the cultural differences in Japanese business practices – ‘personal fidelity is not important but corporate fidelity is absolute.’ He also commented on the issue of gender in business with an astronomically disparity in gender in business in Japan with less than 1% of women managers most of the male dominated organisations are Western companies.

Michael discovered through his close confident that Olympus had bought 3 ‘mickey mouse’ companies for $1 billion and achieved no turnover. The company had additionally paid $800 million to management consultants based in the Cayman Islands which was the biggest advisory fee in the history of capitalism.

On this discovery, which had been exposed originally in a tabloid newspaper, Michael walked around the company and discovered no hysteria and that everything ‘seemed normal, no one seemed concerned.’ Michael continues to discuss his journey of discovery managing to create a fantastic and relaxed atmosphere whilst discussing one of the biggest corporate cover ups of all time.

Michael Woodford talks of the benefits of his secretary who had been loyal to him from the outset and provided valuable insights for him, ‘I wouldn’t have survived in Japan without her.’ He rang his secretary to organise a meeting with the chairman of Olympus, his secretary attempted to guide him away from the meeting, he speaks of the cultural opposition he came up against as if this was an act of rebellion however Michael didn’t see that way. His secretary snapped which he had never seen before and that’s when he ‘knew the organisation was rotten at the core.’

Michael Woodford ‘invites’ two delegates to recreate the Olympus Boardroom on stage (Rajan Madhok and Joy Watson) and describes the cultural significance of being left with a tuna sandwich wrapped in clingfilm! Rajan Madhok and Joy Watson play two of the Olympus Executives, with Michael asking Rajan Madhok to ‘flicker’ his left eyebrow (he could only do his right). Michael Woodford then schools Joy Watson in the etiquette of men’s urinals and how, that by avoiding to talk about anything whilst in the lavatory ‘Joy’ (now in character) was signalling extreme awkwardness. Could a microwave dish company ‘help people with diabetes’? Well, that’s what Michael Woodford was told when he questioned Mori-San (Joy) about the acquisition of such a company. Michael Woodford makes everyone jump with a very loud recreation of being bellowed at by Mori-San and how, by being shouted and pointed at, he ‘knew that something was rotten at the top of Olympus’ and that the story of the scandal was true.

Michael was in New York City when he realised he would have to expose this story without the support of his company. He drafted an email to Olympus senior staff to disclose the illicit activity. An emergency board meeting was called, he knew that he was fired or as he calls it a ‘corporate execution.’ He ends his presentation as abruptly as he was fired! Leaving the audience wanting more, he thanks the delegates for their time and that closes Exposure.

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