Koki Hirashima became CEO of Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. in 1998, but his involvement with the Marysville, Ohio, company goes back more than a decade.
The executive, now 57, began his career with Honda Motor Co. in Japan in 1969. In 1993, he moved to Ohio as chief engineer for Honda's Marysville assembly plant at a time when Honda was preparing to expand its technical capabilities there.
Hirashima moved through a number of jobs at Marysville before becoming president. He is responsible for all Honda manufacturing and engineering activity in North America. Staff Reporter Lindsay Chappell spoke to Hirashima near his home in Dublin, Ohio.
What is the significance of Honda's 25th anniversary as a manufacturer in the United States?
We view this anniversary as a good time to review our current situation and talk about our past. As we think about the future, we have to think about our past. If we don't know about our current situation, we can't produce good strategy for the future.
Where were you 25 years ago?
I was in Britain at that time, working on a project between Honda and Austin Rover. I was one of the engineers developing a joint-venture car. I learned much from them, especially about Europe. They developed more cars than we did, and some very nice cars.
But the most important thing I learned there was about managing people. It wasn't a good situation. Whenever I walked into the plant, their associates would start to bang tools and make noise. The radios would go up. There was tension. I went into the plant many times, and finally I think they came to understand what we were doing over there. We weren't there to build the car. I told the associates many times, "you are the ones building the car." They finally understood what I was thinking.
What did you think 25 years ago, as a young engineer, when you heard that Honda would manufacture in America?
I had come to America several times in the early 1970s to work with the EPA on certification. I wasn't involved much with the plant decision. I had visited TRC (Ohio's Transportation Research Center, near where Honda built its Marysville plant). I heard that Honda was to build a new plant there, and I remember thinking, "that's a nice place." Small town. Peaceful. I felt that we would be able to learn more from some more experienced people.
Didn't it startle you a little? Here was little Honda taking on the big U.S. competition.
At that time, I didn't think so much in terms of competition. In visiting the United States to work on EPA issues, I had worked with engineers from General Motors and Chrysler. I never thought of them as competitors. I thought of them as friends. We all faced the same issues on emissions and regulations. Maybe the other guys thought differently.
And in those days we didn't think of Honda as small. We were working hard developing new technologies, in engines or what have you. That wasn't the challenge for us. The bigger challenge was learning how to build the car at the factory. Even today, when we develop a new technology, the issue is how to put it into the factory.
A car passes through the hands of so many people as it goes through the factory. How can we keep everyone focused?
The past 10 years have been a period of fast growth. What have been your greatest challenges?
Learning how to keep the minds of our associates focused. As we've become bigger, it's been a challenge to always find consensus among all of our associates.
In the early years, when we were smaller, it was easier to communicate with everyone. But we've added thousands of people in the last few years. It's difficult to know how to communicate with all of them and how to transfer knowledge. We now must also be able to transfer knowledge to Honda of Alabama.
Honda of Alabama is run as a separate company from the Ohio operations, which is run separately from the Canadian operations. With all the growth you've had, wouldn't it help Honda to establish a centralized North American manufacturing office?
No, I don't think so. Respect for the individual is something that's very important to Honda. It's the same thing to have respect for each company. One company might have an expertise in one area. For example, Ohio takes a leadership role in r&d, and it can help the other plants.
Maybe some functions should centralize because the development stage of a project is so important. But more important to us is who builds the actual car. We have several plants in North America. Each plant has to decide for itself whether its product is ready to ship to the customer.
What challenges do you face in the next few years?
One is the severity of market conditions. Every company is introducing new cars. To compete with them, we have to remember the competitive spirit we've had in the past. If we don't give up, we can survive. That's what our past history reveals - that if we can keep all our 13,000 Ohio associates focused in the same direction, for example, if we don't give up, maybe we'll stay around.
Sometimes we hear what sounds like the beginning of new trade friction between the United States and Japan. After 25 years in America, Honda spends $12 billion annually on American parts and contents. You employ 13,000 people here in Ohio - something like 25,000 nationwide. Do you feel like you're finally safe from the political saber rattling?
I hope we can keep things as they are. But some of these issues are decided by others. If a customer wants our car, I don't think it's so important what the trade issues are. If they want our product, we have to protect ourselves on these issues. I think we'll always have to watch what's happening.
I don't like being called a transplant. We are an American company. At HAM, except for me, almost everybody is American. Maybe my thinking is a little different from some Japanese executives. But I see this as an American company. I can't speak English well, but I believe I think the same way as our associates.