Lessons in communication from an expert on Japanese business

Just over a year ago, on May 5, 2003, German-owned company Schiesser made known its intention to shut down the underwear factory it had operated in Greece for decades. The move, as the firm explained, was the result of its decision to seek lower labor costs in Asia. The issue of Schiesser’s 500 layoffs literally caused panic in the labor unions and employees of multinational subsidiaries. Indeed, the labor cost differentials between Europe and Asia cited in the Schiesser case came as something of a shock to Greece. This shock was perhaps the chief reason for us to seek, a year later, an interview with Dr Alexander Paufler, Mercedes-Benz Hellas’s managing director as of January 1. His stint in Japan for 16 years as senior executive officer of Mitsubishi Motors Corporation makes him perhaps one of the most authoritative people to compare two strikingly different labor markets, such as those of Greece and Japan. The discussion ultimately acquired its own pace, showing that communication is a top priority for Paufler. A current student of Greek – for, as he says, «you must communicate in the language of your clients in the country you are promoting your products» – a painter and admirer of Nobel Prize-winning Greek poet George Seferis, 51-year-old Paufler led the discussion to an analysis of the advantages of creative communication in management. «It is very dangerous to engage in a comparison of two different markets,» he says. Nevertheless, as «a businessman must take the risk,» he explains that since November, apart from the high cost of services in Athens compared to Tokyo (!), he has been concerned about what it is that makes Greeks tick. «If you want to sell something, you must discover what the client wants.» And so he began wondering, within the context of this generalization, «what it is that makes the Greek client not be very familiar with internationally famous pianist Sgouros or composer Vangelis Papathanassiou, and, at the same time, be prepared to pay dearly for a bottle of whisky or buy incredible quantities of flowers in order to rain them down on a singer at a bouzouki club.» Exploring the personality of the Greek consumer, he has arrived at the conclusion that «he pays a lot because he prefers the specific artist, in other words, the specific product.» Everything, therefore, «is a matter of mentality.» «And if I wish to sell in the Greek market, I must explore this mentality in greater depth,» Paufler says, using the Greek word. For this reason, one of his first moves in relation to company staff was to adopt a different management philosophy. «The first thing I did one night when I gathered them all was to explain that I wanted us to have direct communication. I wanted them to understand that problems can only be solved through direct communication. Problems must be thrashed out on the table because bad news grows quickly when not dealt with. It is very important for people in the same company to sing the same song. Otherwise, we have a cacophony.» His motto, «United we stand,» is engraved with the trademark of the company on a gift to its 22 commercial representatives. He places particular emphasis upon the formation of a common perception among all staff, and notes that he found the company’s labor union responsive. «I am interested in the white- as well as the blue-collar workers,» he says characteristically. Communication with staff «is not propaganda, but the sole means to someone realizing that only through further training, innovation and technology will a product that cannot be described as cheap expand in the market.» He thinks regular meetings with all staff are very important, as everyone, including the telephonist, «must know what I am doing, what targets I have and why.» «We do not simply have machines; we create dreams for the acquisition of these machines,» he explains. He holds his staff in high esteem and appreciates the Greeks’ good grounding in foreign languages and the passion and interest of Greek families in the education of their offspring. He insists that «everything is a matter of people» and that he is concentrating on a strategy of improving the network of commercial representatives, education and training and customer service. «The fertilizer is there, I am only the gardener,» Paufler says. He believes the Greek market has very large margins for growth, but disarmingly avoids the question of how he intends to face his chief competitors, BMW and Audi. «The issue is just like in school. You must not be concerned about what your fellow student at the next desk is writing, but about what you do.» What’s the most important difference between a good and a bad manager? «In Germany, we have a proverb that says that when you cry in a forest, your voice returns to you. A recent study showed that the most successful businesses are those that communicate, that consider that every day they must stage an Olympiad of ideas that can collect the best ideas from all partners and staff. And, embracing a view recently voiced by Google’s top executives, Paufler insists «we must discover how to turn creativity and passion for our work into an institution.»

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