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A yen for global growth: The Japanese experience in cross-border M&A

Japanese companies have embarked on an increasing number of international acquisitions in recent years. Can they learn from past failures and create value from cross-border deals?

An appreciating yen and a stagnant domestic market make global expansion a logical move for Japanese companies with bold growth aspirations. Indeed, Japanese companies are making international forays, albeit quietly: it is a little-reported fact that the number of outbound M&A deals in Japan has been on an upward trajectory in recent years. If the trend continues, Japanese cross-border M&A activity will soon surpass its 1990 peak.

Deal levels would be even higher if Japanese companies were not haunted by past M&A failures. Pitfalls abound along the road to international M&A, and although some of them are now well-known and thus studiously circumvented, others—particularly those having to do with fundamental differences in business and management culture—seem almost impossible for Japanese companies to avoid. Retaining foreign talent presents a particular challenge.

To gain insights into how Japanese companies should manage international acquisitions, we interviewed non-Japanese executives whose companies have been acquired by Japanese companies in large cross-border M&A deals within the past decade. We also conducted in-depth outside-in analyses on a handful of deals in which Japanese companies—such as Hitachi Construction Machinery, Suzuki Motors, Takeda Pharmaceuticals, and Toshiba—were able to boost international sales through cross-border M&A.1

Our findings indicate that there is no silver-bullet approach to capturing the greatest value from an international acquisition. Companies have had success using a variety of approaches, each tailored to the acquirer’s strategic intentions, its unique characteristics, and the dynamics of the industry. Although a company’s particular industry, context, and objectives should dictate the specific tactics it uses, the approaches we studied can give acquirers a starting point to consider—whether that starting point entails focusing on one such tactic or emulating all of them.

Perspectives of the acquired

Most Japanese executives who have played the global M&A game are familiar with the most common obstacles: disagreement between the acquirer and the acquired over how much value ought to be captured immediately after the deal closes or the positioning of the new subsidiary within the parent company, assumptions by Japanese leaders that what works for their company must also work elsewhere, inattention to the acquired company’s employees, and a lack of postacquisition-management leadership and skills.

What may be less familiar—and even surprising—to them are the observations of executives at US and European companies that have been acquired by Japanese companies. Interviews with executives from six such companies of various sizes (from $200 million to $1 billion in value) indicate a number of stumbling blocks. The first four, in particular, are detrimental to talent retention; they are the main reasons that non-Japanese executives do not stay long at such companies.

A hands-off approach. Although Japanese executives may think the acquired company would prefer to be left alone—and although the parent company’s restraint may at first appear admirable and wise—many foreign executives come to feel that this is the wrong approach. One major benefit of being acquired, they say, should be that the subsidiary can fully leverage the capabilities of its parent company. Foreign executives want the acquirer to engage with its new subsidiary and jointly tackle issues as they arise.

An ambiguous power structure. Non-Japanese executives have difficulty determining where the true power lies within a Japanese organization. For example, the deal executive in an M&A situation could have a lofty title (such as senior managing director). The target company might therefore focus on building a relationship with this person, continue to interact with him after the acquisition, and belatedly discover that he actually has no direct reports and no influence over day- to-day business. In one case, the deal executive was kept on staff only because he was a favorite of the former CEO.

The tyranny of the middle. Our interviewees said that middle managers at the parent company can be destructive forces: they derive power from their proximity to the Japanese CEO and try to control information. A common example: if the acquired company requests additional capital investment for growth, middle managers may choose not to raise this request to the CEO. When the leaders of the acquired company follow up with the CEO a few months later, they learn that the CEO was never informed of the request. Incidents such as this can cause middle management to lose the respect of line leaders at the acquired company.

The glass ceiling for foreigners. Japanese companies often have an insular culture. The general assumption is that a foreigner can rise only so high in the organization. Foreign executives thus consider leaving not because of unsatisfactory compensation but because they feel their careers are unfairly capped.

Detail orientation. American and European executives have difficulty understanding Japanese attention to detail. A Japanese company’s due-diligence checklist, for example, is typically three times longer than that of an acquisition-savvy Western company, in part due to Japanese companies’ risk aversion. In a postacquisition setting, a Japanese company would want to understand, for instance, the discrepancy between a sales forecast and actual sales. It could very well decide to investigate assumptions made a year ago, whereas a Western company would care only about the actual sales figure and how to improve it.

Poor postacquisition planning. Attention to detail notwithstanding, Japanese companies tend to be laissez-faire about what happens immediately after a deal closes. They do not see value in creating a concrete architecture in the interim to ensure a successful transition. Foreign executives often lament that transition governance and interim processes for decision making, resource allocation, and escalation of business-critical issues are insufficiently discussed.

Sudden metamorphosis from friendly partner to distant boss. Our interviewees reported several experiences in which the initial integration phase was friendly and collaborative, then abruptly morphed into an intense discussion about steep cost reduction. Although this happens in non-Japanese settings as well, it is particularly pronounced in Japanese M&A because Japanese buyers can be extremely polite—to a point that foreigners sometimes find misleading. In one case, even though the acquirer had already decided to eliminate the target company’s research department, executives still made multiple visits to the target’s research sites to keep up appearances. When employees at the target company learned that the decision was made months ago, their trust in the parent company crumbled.

Four approaches

To find out how Japanese companies have addressed one or more of these pitfalls, we examined the approach of the very small number of companies—14, to be exact—that completed at least five acquisitions during the past decade and generate more than half their revenues from overseas markets. In each of the deals we examined, the acquirer used a different postacquisition approach depending on the focus of the change program (exhibit). The approaches are not mutually exclusive. A company can emulate elements from all of them, depending on its particular industry, context, and objectives.

Japanese acquirers used four types of postacquisition change programs.
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Establishing mentorship or exchange programs to build leadership talent

For acquirers whose main objectives include leadership development, one tactic involves pairing high-potential managers from the acquired company with an executive from the parent company as a coach and mentor. This helps build alignment between the acquirer and the acquired. The frequent and direct communication between leaders at both entities—without having to go through middle management—also allows for tighter coordination.

When in 2002 Japanese automaker Suzuki Motor acquired a majority stake of Indian company Maruti Udyog, Suzuki engineered change at the top. It appointed a Suzuki executive as president and CEO of Maruti and took over 6 of the 11 board seats. But it also promoted four high-potential Maruti leaders—in sales, marketing, R&D, and administration—to corporate-officer roles and assigned each a functional executive from Suzuki as a mentor. The pairs were held jointly accountable for formulating new strategies. If postacquisition performance is any indication, the mentorship program has worked: Maruti’s sales have quadrupled, and profits are up 17 times from 2002 levels.

Another promising tactic is two-way dispatch of executives (from acquirer to target and vice versa). When Takeda acquired US pharmaceutical company Millennium in 2008, it engineered an exchange of personnel to facilitate mutual understanding of corporate cultures. It invited Millennium’s CEO to join Takeda’s management team. Researchers from both companies traveled between Japan and the United States to strengthen their research capabilities. In 2011, Takeda transferred several Millennium researchers to its new research center in Japan. And Takeda recently named Millennium’s head of strategy—a Westerner—as head of business development for Takeda, showing the company’s openness to high-potential leaders from its subsidiary. Thanks to Millennium, which has been put in charge of all oncology efforts at Takeda, the company is now preparing to begin trials of three or four cancer-drug candidates per year—a significant increase from historical levels.

These talent-development programs signal to foreign executives that the parent company is willing to invest in their professional advancement, giving them confidence that they can break through the perceived glass ceiling.

Creating a special coordination unit at the division level

Another model entails the creation of a dedicated coordination office or unit to manage the integration. Depending on the company’s objective, the unit can be large or small. A large coordination office may make sense if there is a strong appetite for capturing value from cost synergies (by streamlining operations) and revenue synergies (by launching new initiatives that leverage both companies’ strengths). If the goal is intervention in one or two functions, a smaller, SWAT-type team may be more apt. In either case, the model helps avoid a leadership gap in postacquisition management. With a dedicated team, there is no question as to who is leading the integration effort. Toshiba acquired US-based Westinghouse Electric in 2006 to raise Toshiba’s global presence in nuclear generation. Toshiba sought to influence Westinghouse while also allowing it a degree of autonomy—which was critical, since the two companies had different types of nuclear technology. Toshiba set up two coordination offices: one within Westinghouse, whose members were drawn from Toshiba and its strategic partners Shaw Group and IHI (both of which had minority stakes in Westinghouse), and another within Toshiba. The offices worked together on strategy development and implementation. Three years later, Toshiba had record orders, including its first US orders for two large-scale projects.

Hitachi Construction Machinery took a slightly different tack when it acquired a majority stake in Indian construction-equipment manufacturer Telcon, a joint venture with Tata Motors, in 2010. With the goal of increasing the quality of Telcon’s products, Hitachi dispatched seven Hitachi experts to the Telcon functions that needed fundamental change, such as quality assurance and product design. This specialist team, which was expanded in 2010, had full authority to direct Telcon’s performance-improvement efforts and created plans to optimize manufacturing processes, support services, and employee training. By creating a dedicated team, a company can begin to build internal skills that will prove useful in subsequent acquisitions. In the best cases, the individuals chosen for the coordination office are high-potential executives with excellent communication skills and business savvy.

Developing local trainers as change agents

In the third model, the front line is the focus of change. Employees from the foreign company are brought to Japan for “train the trainer” sessions that are more than a means of technology transfer— they also become opportunities to promote Japanese corporate values and management philosophy. These sessions help create a sense of belonging among the acquired employees that can, in turn, lead to greater motivation and higher employee-retention rates.

When a Japanese manufacturer acquired a Southeast Asian company in 2006, it became the industry’s second-largest player. The acquirer was deliberate in how it chose to transfer its technology to its new subsidiary: it abandoned its traditional system of sending senior Japanese engineers to overseas subsidiaries to serve as trainers. Instead, select employees from the acquired company came to Japan for training, then returned to their home countries to train local employees. Approximately 700 non-Japanese employees have now undergone training in Japan; 60 of them have gone on to further study and been designated expert trainers. Although the Japanese corporation suffered along with the rest of the industry during the economic crisis, the combined company was recently able to beat the market leader for a high-profile contract—an achievement in which the new subsidiary played a critical role.

By choosing not to dispatch its own employees but rather to bring in employees from the acquired company, Japanese companies can create room for “translation”: the change agents at the new subsidiary come to understand the corporate strategy and the vision for the integrated entity, and they develop a greater understanding of and appreciation for the technical advantages that each company offers. These change agents become effective champions of Japanese techniques and practices.

Implementing company-wide culture-infusion programs

To infuse Japanese business culture into an acquired company, acquirers can launch initiatives that differ completely from those preceding them and ensure frequent communication on all fronts (for example, through employee newsletters or town halls). The most effective initiatives appear to be informal mechanisms that model Japanese norms while also bridging the divide between management and the front line. Company-wide programs, implemented correctly, can help motivate and retain target-company employees.

Suzuki, for instance, gave all Maruti employees sufficient exposure to Suzuki’s unique way of doing things. It promoted an open corporate culture, which was foreign and jarring in the Indian context. Top management and employees eat in the same cafeteria. Everyone, from the CEO to the factory worker, wears the same uniform to work. All employees—again, including the CEO—participate in morning exercise routines. (Although several Japanese companies hold dear the ritual of morning exercises, no others, to our knowledge, have introduced it at a non-Japanese subsidiary.)

These case examples should give Japanese executives the confidence to venture beyond Japan’s borders. Our findings indicate that there are a variety of promising approaches to postacquisition management and that leaders of Japanese companies must develop their own winning approach—sometimes through trial and error and constant refinement. Their first step should be to compile a list of acquisition targets that make sense given their strategic intentions. They should then come up with guiding principles and a blueprint for a postacquisition-management approach, tailored to their company’s strengths and the key value drivers of the industry. Japanese companies can—and indeed, if they want to grow, must—go global.

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