Power Players

The 'Lost in Translation' moment this CEO overcame to build an international business

Takeshi Niinami, CEO of Suntory Holdings, gestures as he answers questions during a press conference in Tokyo on July 1, 2014.
Toru Yamanaka

When Takeshi Niinami was appointed CEO of Japanese drinks company Suntory Holdings in October 2015, he had a major task on his hands.

Not only was he to be the first non-family member to take the reins in the distiller's 115-year history, he was also to lead the business' $16 billion takeover of U.S. spirits maker Beam.

The merger marked the blending of two very different companies and cultures — a task Niinami dubbed his "Lost in Translation" moment, referring to the 2003 film in which an unlikely pair of Americans (played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson) strike up a friendship after finding themselves feeling isolated in Tokyo, Japan.

"There was a huge cultural gap," Niinami told CNBC's Christine Tan in a recent episode of "Managing Asia."

Actors Bill Murray (L) and Scarlett Johansson talk at the 76th Annual Academy Awards Governors Ball at the Kodak Theatre on February 29, 2004 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevin Winter

In particular, Niinami noted a striking difference between the two companies' business tact. Beam valued simplicity, while Suntory preferred ambiguity.

That caused a clash early on, when Beam's CEO believed he had received approval for his budget while Suntory insisted he had not, said Niinami.

"I tried to convince people in Japan to be clear cut, to communicate with Beam people," he said. "To make it clear whether they agreed or not."

Those contrasting approaches are typical of the differing cultures in Japan and the West. A nod of the head in the U.S., for example, signals agreement, while it can be less straightforward in Japan.

But they also reflect the companies' respective legacies as private and public companies. Beam, as a public company, had long been beholden to shareholder demands, and therefore was used to providing clarity in its actions. On the other hand, Suntory, a family-run company, had not.

To resolve the clashes, Niinami set up a Suntory University to enable both sides to gather and share more about their two company's "founding spirits."

"That overcame a lot of difficulties because that's a mutual, shared value," he said.

The launch played into Niinami's wider leadership strategy, too. He planned to make Suntory a global name, growing in the U.S., while also targeting new markets in India and China.

For that, the CEO said he is now developing a team of future leaders who can work internationally across different cultures and markets.

"To be praised very highly by every corner of the world, we need more leaders," said Niinami. "And I want to leave the legacy that Suntory is the right company to create good global leadership."

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