Corporate opacity at Olympus

Posted: April 15, 2013 in Books
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Olympus E-PM2 with Tokina 80-400mm

Olympus E-PM2 with Tokina 80-400mm (Photo credit: hto2008)

I was really looking forward to reading ‘Exposure: Inside the Olympus Scandal‘. Perhaps unfortunately it has parallels to the fictional ‘Rising Sun‘ so I was hoping for a similarly dramatic story of moral uprightness in the face of wrongdoing. Maybe some readers found that to be the case, but as I worked through the book I thought the ethics of the situation became murkier.

In brief: Briton Michael Woodford was made President of Olympus in 2011. Just a few months into the job he became aware of an accounting fraud when it was leaked to independent magazine Facta by an anonymous employee. He tells his executives to investigate it but gets stonewalled and, when he pushes the issue, the board dismisses him.

The fraud in question was a loss incurred all the way back in the late 1980s during Japan’s property slump, when an investment turned sour. Company insiders had kept it out of the accounts all that time before deciding to realise the loss in 2008 by purchasing a phoney company and counting the $700 million debt as an ‘advisory fee’. Woodford wryly comments that, had it been real, it would have been the largest advisory fee in history.

But that’s as far as the scandal goes. There’s no hidden agenda, no underworld involvement, not even any personal enrichment arising from these shenanigans. The perpetrators were motivated purely by the desire to protect their own company. A victimless crime then? Not exactly; the shareholders were clearly being misled, however massaging of ugly facts is so commonplace in Japan that it’s difficult to call it wrongdoing (see earlier post about laws vs norms). The Economist described the Olympus affair as “not so much a scandal as a state of mind”.

Is it just a simple clash of Anglo American vs Japanese values? Woodford didn’t think so. He argues forcefully while at Olympus (and again in his book) that such practices are rotten and need to change. Japan’s closed-rank corporate culture, he says, did wonders for the country in the postwar era but now that those companies have grown up they need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances. Unquestioning deference does not allow people to take the necessary risks to fight off competitors, notably including those in next-door Korea. Woodford passionately wants Olympus to succeed but sees its own corporate culture as its biggest challenge. How much impact his actions will have in the long term remains to be seen.

Here he is talking about his experience on Australian television:

Shareholder value versus value to other stakeholders

On the narrower question of the fraud itself, I can empathise with the unknown people who were trying to correct the damage. They remind me of the hapless crew of the Battleship Yamato who continued to man the guns even when the ship’s fate was sealed. Woodford comes from an Anglo-American perspective of shareholder capitalism. In his view the profitability of the company is the number one value. The Japanese, on the other hand, see the company in a more embedded fashion: it exists in a web of relationships including the other members of its keiretsu conglomerate, suppliers, customers, employees and factory towns. It sounds noble to make the company face the music, but what effect does it have on the ongoing wellbeing of all those stakeholders? (If that sounds touchy-feely, don’t laugh; the U.S. Government used exactly these justifications to rescue both the financial industry and General Motors)

Faced with such ludicrously high responsibility, it’s not hard to see why the poor devils working in Olympus’s back offices opted to delay the day of reckoning. I’m not saying it was the right call, just that it’s understandable with the pressure they would have felt.

Harvard Business Review ran an article last month titled ‘Long CEO Tenure Can Hurt Performance’. It compared the stock return of several companies against the length of tenure of their CEO and, sure enough, the short-term CEOs saw the greatest rise in stock price. What was omitted was whether the companies stock prices performed better after the CEO in question departed; not as well, I suspect. However that is a tactical argument. The real point is that bundled into the article is the Anglo-American assumption that the share price is the measure of a company’s worth, and what it accomplishes in the real world is only an adjunct to this. I’m not convinced.

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