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By Emily Downey
(The Internationalist Fall 2016 Vol. 57)
I met with Kintaro Ueno, an NIS student from 1970-78 at the stunning, glass-filled car showroom, café, and modern event space called Mercedes-Benz Connection, located a minutes walk from Tokyo Midtown in Roppongi. Ueno is the first ever Japanese President and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Japan appointed after an almost 30-year multifaceted role within the company. In fact, he joined the brand in 1987, a year after the company was formed in Japan. His first role within Mercedes was in sales, after an adventure-filled few years at Waseda University which found him following his youthful passion in karting and heading up a local rally car team. His impressive height hovering over 6 feet, slightly curtailed him from pursuing the sport more professionally but his early love for cars and karting no doubt steered him towards Mercedes.
I felt immediately at ease upon meeting with Ueno, with his generous smile, and casual manner evident despite being impeccably dressed in a formal navy suit. He quickly launched into stories from his Nishimachi days, reeling off a bunch of fellow classmates' names with a warm laugh. It came as no surprise that he spoke English like a native speaker, despite admitting he rarely has a chance to do interviews in English.
We began by talking about his first memories of Nishimachi and how he came to be there, considering it was the early 1970's and both his parents were Japanese. It turns out his father was in the recruiting industry, dealing with large shipping companies and he realized that English may be a useful skill that he wanted his son to be equipped with – "(my father) had difficulty with his (own) linguistic skills." Next thing he remembers was being taken out of Japanese youchien and put in front of Tané Matsukata at her office. "I had never in my life met a person like that (Miss Matsukata), she was well dressed, organized, nice hair and very much like a principal. Luckily I was never sent to the principal's office," he chortles. Shortly after the meeting he was placed into grade one. At that stage of his life, Ueno had zero English skills. "The first three years were torture," he recalls, again with a laugh. He talks fondly of Hirooka-sensei, who 'saved' him and helped him with daily extra English lessons after school and sometime whispering of Japanese in his ears during class. Upon reflection he admits that the early lack of language understanding led him to adopt other methods and skills to read people and to communicate, a trait he readily values to this day in his hugely challenging role at Mercedes. "Because I didn't understand the language, I had to adopt other skills to read people." A second grade teacher by the name of Miss Shaver was his first 'all-English, all-day' experience which, through a kind of baptism of fire, forced him even further into immersion in English as she herself spoke no Japanese. Upon reflection of these still vivid memories, Ueno 'appreciates the challenge' that Nishimachi gave him, a theme that comes through time and again as his career progressed to where he found himself placed in new areas of challenge and growth and each time he appears to 'magically' rise to the very top.
When asked what kind of student he was, Ueno laughs is his typical hearty way, "it was a challenge" but one that he 'does not regret' in the slightest. In fact, he was carefully considering placing his now 14-year-old twin sons into the international system in Japan. The fact that his sons passed their Japanese entrance tests with flying colors took the complex decision away from him.
Ueno attended Nishimachi all the way through 8th grade whereupon he decided to re-enter the Japanese school system of his own volition, rather than at his parents' wishes. His self-reflection, that he would most likely be based in Japan for the unforeseeable future was the catalyst for this line of thinking. So, at the tender age of 14 he made the adult decision to apply for a local, public junior high school. History appeared to repeat itself and once again he found himself in front of the principal and being assessed on his readiness to gain admission. "At age 6 and age 14 I had a kind of déjà vu, the same thing happened again." Once again he found that he was somewhat of an outlier in both the process of entry and with the other students. "Did they (the Japanese students) accept me? – good question, yes and no." Some of his fellow students were drawn to him for his 'differences' while others kept their distance. This time, despite the initial challenges faced, Ueno appeared to adapt quickly to his new surrounds and making as many friends as he had done at NIS. His love of sports, in particular basketball, was a common bridge between the two opposing educational environs. One could naturally surmise that this transition was greatly aided by his early experience of adapting to a new environment at Nishimachi. "It was my decision to make the change between the two school systems, so I think it helped to accept it." The fact that he had already learned to kuuki-wo-yomu, or read the atmosphere, really helped in both his schooling life and certainly later on working for the large multinational of Mercedes-Benz. "It is such a useful skill to have, to read the situation of what is going on around you."
Ueno's journey within the company has been remarkable, seeing Mercedes grow from a team of 30 to about 500 employees and 213 dealerships Japan-wide. "We are not a Japanese car company, we are a German one," but "my earlier experiences, to be tossed around, gave me the ability to handle so many (work) assignments at once." This is evident upon looking at his roles within the company that varied from selling trucks at one time to being part of the human resource department. Another skills test arose when Ueno, at the age of 29 was sent to Germany in an exchange program within the company. "I got placed into a German environment of which I had no less understanding, despite the language difference." It is remarkable to once again observe his use of 'other' skills to adapt to the culture and work life over in Europe. "I don't know why I didn't have a breakdown," he reflects deeply, but to the casual observer it is very clear to see why and where he drew his strength from. Ueno is a keen jogger, having found himself at one time a little overweight from the hectic family/work life balance. His solution was to take up running, particularly when on his frequent international travel business trips, to combat jetlag. "It (running) is easy to give up but I like the challenge of choosing the harder way." Such simple reflection and rhetoric has had a continuing driving force throughout his life and career.
When touching upon his childhood dream job it is uncovered that his early teen years were spent as an avid kart racer. The fact that Nishimachi had no school on weekends greatly aided him in fulfilling his youthful passion. As his experience grew he 'got pretty good' but found from the age of 15 it was hard to keep up the Japanese study and the racing. Under the guidance of his parents, "they realized I could not keep up both the karting and the entrance test studies," he took up a deeper role in gaining entrance to a private Japanese high school. To aid his study he joined a cram school whereby English skills were heavily weighted to gain entry to the juku. He aced the English component of the test as well as doing well on the Japanese and maths. It seemed all the cards he had been dealt in life were finally coming into play. "English has helped me along the way, for a part time job I got a better paying job as a translator." During his university studies Ueno worked for a number of car-related magazines and publications as an interpreter and translator at events, often side by side with a cameraman. He also landed a side gig managing a rally cross team before deciding that journalism or professional racing was not for him. Ueno ended up approaching Mercedes of his own volition, a year after they arrived in Japan in 1986, and he found himself in the role of back office sales "a kind of admin role." Almost 30 years later and countless roles within the company, he finds himself at the top as president and CEO. "My predecessors (Hans Tempel, Nicholas Speeks, and others) were so important to me, and without them, I could not be where I am. They gave me challenges, tasks, support, and advice." Philippe Eymard, Nishimachi director of development, who is listening to our interview, recalls a time when Hans Tempel told him that "Mercedes made a great choice, the best choice" when deciding to make Ueno the CEO.
A typical day in his life? "If I am in Tokyo, I would typically have sales, marketing and management meetings...actually too many meetings that I would like to cut back." His solution to this and to make faster decisions is to do a lot of pre-reading prior to the meeting, so execution can happen at a much faster pace. Ueno has some valuable advice on leadership. "A good leadership helps to empower people to the max and they (the employees) tend to follow." He then talks about large scale worldwide economic events such as the Lehman shock which was a time where luxury car sales were hit hard. He observed that his people had the mindset that 'nothing can be done' to increase sales, morale, etc., and this did not sit well with him. Instead of simply using the global economy as an excuse, he decided to implement a range of new methods and tactics to face to downturn head on. One such notable technique was to hark back to grassroots methods of selling, whereby he suggested that the dealers to start taking cars to places like shopping malls to reach a larger customer base. "To retell the story of Mercedes from safety to technology and to go fish in the bigger pond." This was a particularly valuable strategy for the new range of compact cars, whose price range was far below what people usually associated with –Mercedes thus equalizing the price differentials to compete with the strong domestic car market. These tactics combined with changing their TV commercial audience to more comedy, sport, and family variety types of broadcasts. By analyzing Mercedes own customer database, it was discovered at over 70% of existing buyers had an interest in golf, so they teamed up with a female pro golfer for an ad campaign. Another avenue identified was that the current buyers participated in sports such as triathlons, so they endeavored to have a presence at these type of events. The culmination of these effective strategies allowed Ueno to realize his long-time dream of opening the Mercedes-Benz Connection space, where we held our interview.
It is immediately obvious that this beautiful, light, and airy modern space is a place for potential and existing Mercedes consumers to come and interact with the cars, including test drive and talk to expert staff. "This is not a dealership" as Ueno points out, rather a showroom and a great marketing space for the brand. "At first my dealers were like, ok are you going to start direct selling cars now?" To which he gently assured them that this space and others like it, for example at Haneda Airport, were actually of benefit to the dealerships rather than competing against them. Once again Ueno stayed faithful to his agenda and vision and long-term plan, which was ahead of its time in the realm of car marketing. It gave Mercedes the most valuable insight into meeting with customers directly, rather than just through the franchised dealerships. This kind of concept allows the consumer to feel more comfortable interacting with the cars and not be in a 'pressured' situation to buy. It is one of many initiatives Ueno has implemented in his long-standing career at Mercedes and one can only assume reign will continue within the company as its leader.
The interview wrapped up after a solid hour of deep discussion and self-reflection, and Ueno appears to be heading straight into another meeting. His sense of purpose, energy, and command is evident to all of us surrounding him. I cannot help to think of the little boy, all those years ago who was placed in front of Miss Matsukata and the figure he has now become. It gave me a great smile and sense of hope for my own three Nishimachi-enrolled children and the wonder at what they will also become one day from their early-life challenges.