A Greek professor steers Toyota Europe

Dr Panayiotis Athanasopoulos is one of the few Greeks who have transcended this small country’s borders to clinch high-ranking positions at top multinational companies. He is also a university professor who, at midlife, abandoned his academic career to take on the high-pressure world of international business. Now chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Europe, Athanasopoulos has not only won over his Japanese bosses but also adopted their business philosophy. Known as Takis by family and friends, Athanasopoulos hails from a small village in the southwestern Peloponnese but is now a major leader in the world’s toughest automobile manufacturing company. Kathimerini interviewed him at his home in Kifissia during one of his recent visits to Greece, probing his views on the Japanese work ethic and culture, the differences between Eastern and Western business styles, and the sacrifices and rewards in his own personal journey to the top echelon of a Japanese automaking giant. What are the greatest difficulties for a Greek trying to build a career as an international business executive? One of the greatest is a lack of experience. And that’s why multinational companies in Greece, either foreign or Greek, are few and small in size, complexity and specialization. On the other hand, our national economy is not competitive – and businesses expand only when there is strong and forceful competition in the domestic market. Japan became the country of automaking because it has an incredible domestic market which improved its technologies and its procedures. Education in Greece may be good on a theoretical level, but it has not kept up with the changes that have affected the country in the domestic and international market. And that’s why our executives are at a disadvantage – and me along with them. We all begin with one disadvantage. You abandoned your academic career for the world of business. What was the decisive factor? It’s difficult to be both a university professor and the president of a large company. The time came when I had to choose, and the world of business satisfied me more… We have reached a point where university is not such a dynamic area; there has been stagnation for a thousand reasons, which are familiar enough. And since I am a dynamic person by nature, I decided to work in the world of business. For an executive pursuing an international career, what is the greatest honor? And what must one be prepared to give in order to succeed? First, you won’t be there for many of your family’s most important moments. Your kids will grow up and you won’t even realize it. Second, your friends will forget you, even though they love you. Finally, you won’t be able to live the joys of life. You will live in a world that is very dynamic, you will travel a lot, you will meet a lot of people and learn about many things, you will feel creative and – depending on how big your career is – participate in big decisions that will affect many things. For a manager, the most important thing is the final result. As the manager, you must mobilize and animate those people who will bring about those final results. These are the greatest rewards of this job. I believe good executives take a liking to this difficult way of life. What can a European learn from the Japanese culture? The Japanese are extremely hardworking, and they give greater importance to details than other cultures. They respect hierarchy and seek harmony, but they also have another good quality: They are very sparing with critiques. In other words, we go to a meeting where some executive has neglected to do something very important, and even though in a European country or in the United States the person in charge would have had a meltdown, the Japanese executives of Toyota don’t waste time on criticism, they just move on. It is in their character. They don’t like to make mistakes, but they realize that people make mistakes. That’s how they operate when they find themselves facing a problem. They are not like us Europeans or Americans, who plunge headfirst into the situation to solve it. The Japanese give special significance to the definition of the problem. That was the biggest adjustment I had to make when I went to Toyota Europe. Because beyond the fact that Toyota has a strong and deep-rooted Japanese foundation, it also has its own and unique company culture, the «Toyota Way,» which says you must first define the process and, after that is done, the answers will come naturally. Do you feel that after so many years you have been accepted by the Japanese? Yes. Because, as I said earlier, they are people who give importance to details and emphasize process. In their relationships they need some time to get to know you from many aspects before they open up and act freely, before they begin to trust you. They are not as quick to form relationships as we are. But from the minute a relationship is created, it will last for years. When I first started at Toyota Hellas, I was struck by how often [the Toyota executives] visited. We used to take them out to eat, where they asked some questions, and a good while passed before I understood that all their questions were essentially the same. In these discussions, we always responded freely, without really ruminating on what we told our other Japanese co-workers whom we had met in the past. But afterward I realized what they were doing: They may have been asking the same things but when they went to their hotel, they briefed their co-workers in Japan and compared our answers. In other words, they study the person, they understand him and when the time comes to negotiate whatever deal, they know very well if the person is stable, if they can trust what he says or if he says whatever he says because he just needs to say something. This article first appeared in the January 15 issue of Kathimerini’s weekly color supplement, K.

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