Honda's first U.S. manufacturing bosses didn't merely change the way cars were built in the United States. They also rewrote the book on how companies approached international operations.
"To be a real-world company, we had to create a kind of independent power in the United States," says Shoichiro Irimajiri, the top executive at Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. from 1984 to 1988.
"If the U.S. had to rely on the Japanese operations forever, it would fail. From the beginning of my career in the States, we were very clear we were going to be an independent, self-reliant company."
Top jobs: Head of Anna, Ohio, engine plant; head of administrative and corporate groups
Now: Principal and executive vice president, Cochran Public Relations, Columbus, Ohio
Their training was extraordinary.
They learned the company's fabled culture directly from the bright young Japanese men who had helped create it. They absorbed The Honda Way from the engineers who had been part of the company's elite racing and engine development teams of the 1960s.
They also learned lessons from an amazing group of Japanese suppliers, and from the aging founder himself.
Top job: President
Now: Member of Board of Directors, Delphi Corp.
Kinzer was first
Al Kinzer was the first U.S. executive hired. He had been a personnel and industrial relations executive at White Motor Corp., a Cleveland maker of heavy trucks, and at engine builder Perkins Diesel Corp. He handled much of the executive hiring for the motorcycle plant.
After running Honda's engine operations, Kinzer went on to become the first president at BMW's U.S. assembly operations in Spartanburg, S.C. He now runs his own consulting firm.
Honda started in America making motorcycles, but Kinzer knew the company could do more. He once told a reporter that he recalled thinking: "If (Honda) can meet its initial objective of producing high-quality motorcycles, the company can pursue the idea of producing automobiles here."
Two lawyers were in the mix: Scott Whitlock and Susan Insley, from the Columbus, Ohio, law firm of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease. Both would become senior manufacturing executives.
Their law firm had Honda as a client, and both worked extensively with Bob Watson, one of the first U.S. executives hired by Honda of America Manufacturing. Watson had come from Ranco Corp., a maker of electronic control devices in Ohio.
Top job: President
Now: Director and adviser to Honda Motor Co. (former president. Honda Motor Co.)
Because Whitlock's father had been a plant manager at Caterpillar, the senior partner in the Vorys law firm knew his way around a factory. But the 44-year-old Harvard Law School graduate had to adapt to Honda's egalitarian atmosphere.
"The dark suit was the accepted uniform at the law firm," he once said. "We wear white ones here."
He eventually would become manager of the Marysville, Ohio, auto plant.
Insley had been a teacher before going to law school. She knew nothing about manufacturing until she began doing legal work for Honda.
Top job: Executive vice president
Now: Retired from law firm Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, Columbus, Ohio
"Mr. Yoshida looked at me and said, 'When are we going to get you into a white uniform and green ball cap?' "
She eventually would become a senior vice president and head of the Anna, Ohio, engine plant.
Learning the Honda Way
The Americans learned about Honda from the first wave of Japanese executives sent to launch operations in Ohio. The group included many of the same bright young men Soichiro Honda had cultivated at Honda's r&d subsidiary in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Irimajiri, now a member of the board of directors of Delphi Corp., was the dominant personality. He was the shining star of his generation of Honda engineers. He had worked on the Formula One racing teams and the so-called Clean Automobile Engine project launched in 1970.
Top job: Senior vice president of purchasing and corporate affairs
Now: Vice president of Delphi Corp. global supply management
In addition to Irimajiri, the group included future Honda Presidents Tadashi Kume, Nobuhiko Kawamoto and Hiroyuki Yoshino, who replaced Irimajiri in Ohio; Yasuhiro Sato, who would in time lead a major Japanese auto supplier; and Takeo Fukui, the current Honda Motor Co. CEO.
Using stories to teach
"They loved to tell the stories, and we heard all of them," says Dave Nelson, Honda of America Manufacturing's purchasing boss from 1987 through 1997. "They were all the leaders of all the key teams as young men, such as racing and the CVCC."
Irimajiri was intent on establishing the Honda culture in Ohio.
"Iri would lecture to his management team every Thursday night for an hour about the Honda Way," says Insley.
He also liked to regale the Americans with tales of the man whose name was on the building.
Irimajiri would tell the story of being booted around Honda's r&d offices by Soichiro Honda in 1965 after his mistake had forced a Honda car out of the British Grand Prix.
Irimajiri had redesigned the car's pistons to save weight, but under the intense heat one of the pistons burned.
As he explained his redesign, the young engineer - in a roundabout way - told the founder that he didn't know what he was talking about. Honda, in a much more direct way, told the young engineer that he was an idiot.
Top job: Senior vice president, plant manager, Anna drivetrain plant
Now: Principal, A.O. Kinzer and Associates Inc., a consulting firm
Among the things that impressed the Americans most was the Japanese suppliers that followed Honda to Ohio.
In 1962, Honda and a team of young engineers had designed the company's first automobile - a chain-driven convertible sports car, the 500cc S500. It was a kind of a four-wheel motorcycle.
"It was an extraordinary engineering achievement," says Nelson, who is now Delphi's top purchasing executive.
Soichiro Honda called upon Japan's major auto parts makers to see if he could get them to make parts for the S500. The suppliers all but ignored the maverick Japanese industrialist who was defying the country's all-powerful Ministry of Trade and Industry by attempting to get into the car business.
The ministry was on a mission at the time to consolidate the Japanese industry, not encourage more competitors.
The traditional suppliers were committed to Japan's established car companies, and Honda had no one to make the parts needed to produce automobiles. So he asked the dozens of little companies that supplied parts for his motorcycles to make them. Almost all of them agreed to do so - and, 40 years later, most still are auto suppliers.
Growing up with Honda
"At that time there was a lot of talk about keiretsu, but Honda couldn't get into the keiretsus," says Insley. "If Mr. Honda was going to get into the industry, he had to work with these very small companies. They quite literally grew up with Honda."
Nelson went to see some of them in Japan in 1988, soon after he joined Honda.
"They were so proud of the kind of relationship they had with Mr. Honda," he says.
One was the stamping company Takao Kinzoku Kogyo Co. The founder, Seisuke Takao, had started in the car business with Soichiro Honda and still ran the operation.
"Quite a lot of them had no formal education," says Nelson. "Takao had a ninth-grade education. He gave everything the fullest attention. I went to see the plant. It was a 60,000-square-foot plant that had seven people working there. It was so automated I couldn't believe it. Everything was automated beyond your imagination."
In the United States, Takao partnered with two other Honda suppliers from Japan to form KTH Parts Industries Inc. in St. Paris, Ohio. KTH did stampings and made frame parts.
"The relationship Mr. Honda had with Mr. Takao was like a brother," says Nelson. "It was intimate. All Honda's suppliers felt that way. At Honda's suppliers over there you walked into their lobby and they sold Honda cars or motorcycles or whatever. It was a very tight relationship."
The first crop of execs adapted the "Honda Way" to the farm country of Ohio. PHOTO: JOE WILSSENS
"These suppliers were specific and unique to Honda," he says. "And they had a kind of free spirit that permeated through the entire supplier chain, just like they did in the racing programs."
Nelson says about 75 suppliers came to Ohio from Japan in the early 1980s to make auto parts for Honda. They made the parts that Honda could not buy in America.
"They could make things better than the companies in America," he says. "Whether it was the close tolerances on a rocker arm or a crankshaft or an engine part. It was extraordinary."
Many of the suppliers who grew up with Honda and followed the company to the United States were small companies taking a huge gamble.
For example, Ichiro Tanana founded Tanaka Seimetsu Kogyo, a maker of rocker arms in Toyama City, Japan. Tanaka was a contemporary of Honda.
"His office in Japan was almost a shrine to Mr. Honda," recalls Insley.
In the United States, the former motorcycle supplier set up FT Precisions in Fredericktown, Ohio. The city reminded the company's executives of their hometown in Japan.
Engine parts maker Kaneta was founded by Tetsushi Kaneta. In the United States, Kaneta established Bucyrus Precision Technology Inc. in Bucyrus, Ohio.
"These were small family owned businesses," said Insley. "They were like mom-and-pop businesses. Going to the United States was a big step for them.
"They came to Ohio in the 1980s with no guarantees that they would get 100 percent of the business. It was a tremendous gamble for them. But for many of these companies, their American operations became their biggest operations."
Insley now says those Honda suppliers were "a kind of miracle."
"They made their way in America," she says. "They had great faith in Mr. Honda and in the Honda company," she says.
The relationships that developed were even deeper than those that bound other Japanese companies and their parts makers.
"There was a special feeling between Honda and its suppliers that went beyond that of Toyota and Nissan," says Nelson.
Part of the reason, she says, is that Honda and its suppliers shared a maverick, little-guy mentality - a vast cultural difference from the tone that existed, say, at Toyota, the giant of Japan's auto industry.
"Toyota was established," says Nelson. "They were so formal. You couldn't use the word formal to describe Honda."
Almost every Japanese carmaker followed Honda in building cars in North America. First Nissan, then Toyota, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Isuzu and Suzuki. By 2003, more than 3.4 million cars had been built by Japanese companies in North America.
Eventually the Germans came, too - BMW and then Mercedes-Benz.
But Honda was first, just as it had been first with the clean-engine program, with a luxury car division and with collaborative supplier relations. Whatever it was, Honda seemed to get there first.
"It was this little company in Japan, but his vision was outside," says Insley. "Mr. Honda said the company's headquarters should not be in Japan, but in a satellite hovering over the earth."