April 1st, 2009
09:05 AM GMT
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You don't really notice Haruka Nishimatsu when he passes you in the hall. A middle-aged man in a suit, he blends into the working crowd at Japan Airline's headquarters in Tokyo.

JAL President Haruka Nishimatsu, center, shares a light moment in front of a jet engine.
JAL President Haruka Nishimatsu, center, shares a light moment in front of a jet engine.

"Why should I stick out?" Nishimatsu says out loud to me.

"Well, you are the CEO and Chairman of this multi-billion dollar international airline," I replied.

"So?" says Nishimatsu. "That doesn't make me special."

That philosophy, that he's just like everyone else trying to make it through Japan's recession, is why he takes the city bus to work, eats in the cafeteria with his employees and strolls through the operations room at the airport. When the company looked to cut costs, he eliminated every single expensive perk of his job. He took away the corner office and chauffeur. Then he slashed his pay dramatically, so that in 2007 he made less than his pilots.

JAL can use every penny it saves. This fiscal year, the airline expects to lose $34 million dollars after passenger traffic fell 20 percent and cargo loads fell 40 percent. It's a global company that lives and dies by the direction of the global consumer and economy.

"I understand there are different conditions in terms of the economy for each country, but I think these economic issues need to be solved globally, rather than solved country by country," says Nishimatsu. "I hope the G20 will give a clear direction to the global economy."

Nishimatsu also believes the solution must begin with the financial institutions and continue to tighter regulations.

But he points to corporate culture as the long-term solution. Like the AIG bonuses, Nishimatsu says, "shocked" him. "It's like they're from another planet," he says.

A lesson of this recession, he hopes, will be that corporations don't solely pursue profit and instead focus on the long-term financial health of the company and employ people and help society. Together with shared sacrifice, he believes, the global economy will recover - but only if everyone from the CEO to the entry-level employee works together.

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Filed under: Financial crisisJapan

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Mike V.

    This guy is one of the most remarkable people there is. I've had the pleasure of meeting CEOs, Vice Presidents, professional atheletes and Nobel laureates. Words cannot properly encapsulate Mr. Nishimatsu's humility and dignity – he is the model for what we need more of. He works every day to reverse one of the single most telling examples of our current world economy: the disparity between the senior corporate leadership and the "front-line" corporate associate.

    April 1, 2009 at 11:17 am |
  2. Jason Martin

    What a great example of the difference in corporate culture!
    That's a company that I could have an allegence and loyalty to.
    No wonder that they enjoy such long average seniority of the employees.
    Mr. Nishimatsu is a shining example in a very soiled senior executive pool.

    April 1, 2009 at 3:57 pm |
  3. Sandra Sears

    People don't understand when you have demonstrations like they are having in London right now they are organized by professonials whose job it is is to make the situation as bad as it can be for everyone involved. If you could get these guys you would not have as much trouble believe me. Violence gets you nothing.

    April 1, 2009 at 7:39 pm |
  4. Manuel Vilhena

    The World in General and Europe in particular have a lot to learn with Japan.

    The so called good practices have been implemented for a long time in Japan and it seems to me that social ethics role in the presented company.

    Congratulations JAL!

    Coventry, UK

    April 3, 2009 at 9:45 pm |
  5. Bon Rendal

    Yes a great example but also a bit of expectation. Here in Japan not cutting your salary, losing the perks would be seen as grounds for removal. Remember even the smallest hiccup in business will be reflected back on the top management and resignations will be required to atone for those mistakes.... forget about a bonus.

    April 4, 2009 at 2:34 am |
  6. Elvis

    Well, 1 dont expect Malaysia to ever follow such leader as Mr. Nishimatsu. He would be looked down upon as cheap charlie. Here is Malaysia, CEO are given special titile such as Datuk Seri, Tan Sri or Datuk. And CEO in Malaysia also enjoy special perks as royalty families. Even if listed companies should filled for bankcruptcy, government will bailout such firms just like in US. I think Mr. Nishimatsu is a very rare individual, perhaps the only one exist in the world! Other CEOs will laughed at him and may go down in lecture halls as lesson to other aspirants not to follow such stupidity. Lets be realistic, CEO should act like one.

    April 5, 2009 at 7:45 am |
  7. tom henderson (perth scotland)

    I admire the attidude of the CEO . As we live in a society of lables and barriers its time to remove them all .
    Work for the common good for all .
    take the slogan from Asda part of the walmart family " every one matters."

    Dificult times bring tough solutions so together we can build for the future generations.

    April 5, 2009 at 4:14 pm |
  8. Andrew

    That Japanese culture you mention is true Rendal, but JAL's performance is hardly a reflection of top management mistakes, so I wouldn't expect his job was ever on the line. All airlines are suffering from a dramatic reduction in passanger traffic and JAL is no different. That being said, taking a paycut and being paid less than most pilots, thats admirable.. what a remarkable man... I would be honored to work for him for life.

    April 5, 2009 at 7:49 pm |
  9. TS888

    "...a bit of a expectation."

    But in the eyes of the west, now jaded by the selfish behavior of celebrities, politicians and many corporate leaders, he's extraordinary.

    Personal responsibility is becoming a quaint memory from the past in the US. Everyone points the finger and says "It's not my fault!"

    April 6, 2009 at 5:15 am |
  10. jack

    Japan has never really been capitalist, though every nation has its share of crooks. Difference is, in US self serving is seen as a good thing, in Japan it is demonized. Attitudes are beginning to change in US where the majoirty is plunged ever closer to poverty.

    April 8, 2009 at 9:00 am |
  11. Bashir, Nigeria

    Comin from a nation so notorious for her corrution record JAL CEO is a like robin hood. Greed and speculation make the world go round. In Nigeria, he'll never make it to the top.

    April 9, 2009 at 4:31 pm |
  12. Ken in Japan

    We do not care what you do or how you slack off in your work time. You should bring in more profit to your company. Having lunch together with your empoyees dose not help much. Get a respect from people outside your company ,not from within your own. I'm really ashamed of you how you distract your hard-working staff from your decade-long haphazard business practice. Now you realize that you must live in the competitive world. How to satisfy customer needs is a key practice for airline companies to survive at least . Do you know what you need to do? Open your eyes!

    July 17, 2009 at 1:03 pm |
  13. Francie Dalton

    Thank you Kyung,
    Those who prevail in difficult times are the ones who steadfastly refuse to allow negativity to form a barrier to their success. They instead deliberately and diligently take constructive action, thereby refreshing and reinvigorating their minds and their spirits, enabling them to take more action, which refreshes and reinvigorates. JAL's CEO is a prime example of this.

    September 28, 2009 at 6:52 pm |
  14. AB

    I know another example of such a man. His example shows that a very frugal style can allow you to get away with quite a lot.

    I am talking about Ingvar Kamprad, CEO of IKEA, the famous furniture dealer. He is old now and more or less out of the game but he is still the ghost hovering above the company. He was famous for a style so spartan that he awed even egalitarian Swedes – his had not even an office of his own, the CEO of a billion dollar corporation was sitting at a simple table on a simple hard seated chair behind an office drawer in a corridor! Eating at the common canteen like all his staff went without saying.

    There goes a famous story of some young Americans who took a job in the US subsidiary of IKEA, fresh from business school with their MBAs in their trunks. Their astonishment of having to haul furniture like any truckdriver is simpler to imagine than describe.

    With his style mr. Kamprad has greased the popular acceptance of his sometimes dubious business practices. Like owning everything worth owning in his home smalltown and lording it like a local baron, like placing high hurdles in front of trade unions, like utilizing timber logged by unscrupulous logging companies in the 3rd world, like engaging in shady financial deals...

    November 3, 2009 at 12:29 pm |
  15. Charles Carson

    This is good poop but let me see how many woman hold management positions at his company. Generally sexual harassment is a sport in Japan and women are reduced to staying in the shadow of men. Shine the light.

    March 6, 2010 at 6:00 pm |
  16. Charles Carson

    In the 1950's the USA had many CEO's like him. What happened?
    FYI, back in the Beaver Cleaver days of the 50's it was illegal in most of the States of the US for a corporate officer or corporation to give money to a politician or to a political campaign. We need to return to that doctrine and laws. Lets put the Supreme Court on notice that they got it wrong...a corporation may be an artificial person but it should not have the same speech rights as a real person!!! GET CORPORATIONS OUT of GOVERNMENT. The first thing that Benito did when he formed the Fascist government after WWI was to form the Council of Corporations, merging the corporate apparatus with the apparatus of State. Sound familiar?

    March 6, 2010 at 6:16 pm |
  17. Andrew Sheldon

    If such thinking was not based on a collectivist pride, maybe that value system would work wonders for Japan. As it stands, it is only delaying the inevitable 'real reform' of values in Japan. The values which mean that people work twice as hard for the same money. The Japanese take pride in suffering to new levels....its about time they gave up working hard and used their brains. They can run around like 'worker ants', but they sadly live by that old thinking...'work hard and you will get ahead'....better to work smart. The Japanese system is based on collectivist or fascist values with a capitalist facade.

    February 24, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  18. ...

    @Andrew Sheldon- you must be an Ayn Rand fan.

    February 19, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  19. Walter

    If the "Occupy...(?)" world wide movement is looking for someone to parte-take in the evolution of social-economical justice, Haruka Nishimatsu should be contributing in this think tank.

    April 10, 2012 at 1:27 pm |

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