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The 2011 financial scandal at the Olympus Corporation, the big Japanese maker of optical equipment, was a head-shaking spectacle. It was rare enough that a Tokyo-based company had elevated Michael Woodford, a Westerner who spoke no Japanese, to its presidency. But when Woodford discovered loss-hiding shenanigans and turned whistle-blower, he set off a tumult unlike anything that the cosseted world of Japanese business had quite seen.
Barely a year later, Woodford, a Briton who spent his career rising through Olympus’s ranks, has produced a memoir of the scandal, “Exposure — Inside the Olympus Scandal: How I Went From CEO to Whistle-Blower” (Portfolio, $27.95).
One could be forgiven for meager expectations. This book was written quickly, and by a chief executive with no professional writing experience and no co-author. Yet “Exposure” is a cut above many CEO memoirs, and is at least equal to most business-scandal books you are likely to find. It is also a harsh indictment of the clubby and unquestioning ways that still flourish in some quarters of the Japanese corporate world.
At its best, especially in the first half of the book, Woodford’s story is as suspenseful as a minor John Grisham novel. It begins last year, barely four months after his elevation to president when, after a long day of meetings at Olympus’s European headquarters in Hamburg, he opens an email sent by one of his aides in Tokyo. It contains an article from a Japanese business magazine called Facta, contending that Olympus had been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on questionable and money-losing acquisitions.
When Woodford rushes back to Tokyo, he expects to find the company in an uproar. What he finds instead is business as usual. He asks two executives if they have seen the article. Yes, they acknowledge, they have. Then why, he asks, hadn’t they told him about it sooner? Because Olympus’s chairman, Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, told them not to, they answer. When Woodford confronts the imperious Kikukawa about the matter, Kikukawa brushes off the whole matter as insignificant and unworthy of his attention.
Though the two men had been close, Woodford paints a devastating portrait of Kikukawa as vainglorious and ignorant of product details.
“While it was often patently obvious he didn’t understand what he was talking about, my colleagues never dared expose this,” he writes. “I quickly learned that no one ever asked why the emperor wasn’t wearing clothes.” When the two men were photographed together for a corporate portrait, Kikukawa stood on a box to minimise the obvious height differential.
It turns out that no one at Olympus wants to explain to Woodford the first thing about the acquisitions in question, much less dig into the Facta allegations. Alarmed, Woodford brings in Ernst & Young to investigate.
At a subsequent board meeting, one Japanese director criticizes him about bringing “outsiders” in. Woodford writes: “His message was clear to me: Olympus was a family, and families require loyalty.”
The author adds: “It reminded me of the speech Michael Corleone delivered to his hapless brother Fredo when he disagreed with him in front of the Las Vegas crowd in ‘The Godfather.’ ”
Three days later, a nattily dressed Kikukawa calls another board meeting, at which point Woodford is fired. “I stared at Kikukawa: at the cut of his expensive suit, at the precision of the knot in that silk tie, at the curt, pinched smile that played beneath his nose,” the author writes. “He struck me as a ludicrous figure, and so delusional. He resembled little more than the captain of a sinking ship who believed that by throwing out the dead weight, his vessel would suddenly right itself and resume its calm drift toward the horizon.”
Woodford is escorted from the building, at which point he decides to go public, igniting a storm of controversy. He holds news conferences and appears on news programmes in New York, London and Tokyo, coming away with a new appreciation for the Fourth Estate. The Olympus board tries to fight back, and here one sees vividly the ways that some sectors of corporate Japan are still firmly mired in the last century — well, make that the 19th century.
In such circles, executives may have little sense of how transparency has transformed international business.
The books loses much of its energy about two-thirds of the way through, when the $1.7-billion cover-up is finally and fully explained; after that, the writing is on the wall. It turns out that after a currency devaluation in the 1980s, Olympus, like any number of Japanese corporations, found ways to hide the resulting losses. Looking to right itself, Olympus engaged in risky derivative trades that its senior executives barely understood, leading to still larger losses.
Eventually, a complex scheme was devised to inflate the purchase price of three nonsensical acquisitions; the extra money was then channeled back to Olympus — in one case, via a titanic $687 million “advisory fee” — erasing the hidden losses.
This fall, Kikukawa and two other former executives pleaded guilty over charges related to the accounting cover-up.
Woodford has emerged as a hero, named by at least one British newspaper as its 2011 executive of the year. And rightly so. His gift for candor, so evident as a whistle-blower, serves him well as a memoirist. He acknowledges that at the depths of the scandal, he took to self-medicating with alcohol; he wakes up with a bad hangover more than once in this book’s pages.
About the worst one can say about “Exposure” is that Woodford can come off as preachy and a tad self-righteous at times. But after all that Olympus and its board put him through, it’s probably fair to say he deserves a bit of time on his soapbox.