President and CEO
Tatsuo Yasunaga learned the ropes at Mitsui & Co. through a series of international postings in his twenties and thirties. His mission as CEO? To drive next-generation growth by delegating down to the individual level.
Yasunaga joined Mitsui & Co. in 1983 as an engineering graduate. In his third year with the firm, he was sent to Taiwan for intensive language training, then placed in charge of operations in China and Indonesia. At 29, he was dispatched to the United States, where he was responsible for the Americas; at 32, he was seconded to the World Bank. Once back in Japan, his work took him to Asia and Oceania, then Russia and the former Soviet Republics, the Near and Middle East, and Africa. “Working at Mitsui, I’ve pretty much covered the whole world,” he says with a laugh. In 2015, at the age of 54, he became Mitsui’s youngest ever president and CEO. The Japanese media made much of his relative youth. Yasunaga talks about his appointment in the following terms.
“I was as surprised as anyone; then, as the shock wore off, it was replaced by excitement. To be frank, my relative youth wasn’t something I worried about. There are plenty of CEOs in their forties in other countries. It’s a very Japanese thing for age and position to count for so much. In terms of how Mitsui interfaces with the rest of the world, it was a pretty meaningless discussion then, and it’s pretty meaningless now. To be an effective leader, you need guts and determination. Thanks to tough experience on the front lines, I’ve developed a good stock of both.”
In Yasunaga’s opinion, the best way to develop people’s abilities is to give them plenty of responsibility early. That’s always been the Mitsui way, he says, and that was the tradition which trained and formed him.
Moving around, building experience
“When I was 24, I got it into my head that I wanted to go abroad and I wasn’t shy about saying so. My boss said, ‘Okay, go to Taiwan and learn Chinese, then. Normally the course is a year, but three months should be fine for you.’ I had to study incredibly hard while I was there.
“Indonesia was my next destination. I was told to ‘go around all the factories in Sumatra and pick up orders.’ I was expecting someone from our Sumatra office to tag along with me, but instead it was, ‘No, you’re a young lad. You’ll do fine by yourself.’ It was real fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants stuff! I was made painfully aware of my own shortcomings on a daily basis. Still, the experience boosted my confidence. I realized I could hold my own anywhere.”
Yasunaga’s next Mitsui posting was the United States. Then, at the age of 32, he was seconded to the World Bank in Washington D.C. There he handled privatizations in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and infrastructure finance in southwest Asia. With 10 years at Mitsui under his belt, Yasunaga was feeling quite sure of himself, but by his own admission his early days at the World Bank “really put his nose out of joint.” Washington D.C. was an unfamiliar world; he was alone and no longer plugged into the Mitsui support network. He began to wonder what he had to offer the bank. After some soul-searching, he found his answer: the traditional strengths of the Japanese plus all the know-how he’d built up at Mitsui.
“That means things like the immense care and precision that go into planning major infrastructure projects. It means uniquely Japanese virtues like close attention to detail, commitment to the job, loyalty to the organization. That was the value that I could bring. People at the World Bank come from a range of cultural backgrounds. To interact effectively with your colleagues and counterparts, you need a very clear idea of who you are and what your strengths are.
“It’s important to respect the people you deal with, but so are the ability to construct a logical argument and good English language skills, if you want negotiations to go your way. Working at the World Bank is an experience I still benefit from today.”
Fortune favors the brave
“Do your best and leave the rest to Providence” is Yasunaga’s favorite proverb. He interprets it in two ways.
“I used to work on big infrastructure projects, a field where the cost of a single project routinely runs into the billions, even hundreds of billions, of dollars. At that scale, things are never simple: there’s a vast number of partners, suppliers and customers on your team. So there’s always some element of the project that’s going to be beyond your control. You have to do everything you humanly can, then, at some point, just stand back and let Providence take over. That’s one side of it.
“The other way of interpreting it is that things won’t turn out well unless you’ve done your job incredibly thoroughly in the first place. You’ve got to work through every possible scenario, explore every possible strategic option—work until the smoke comes out of your ears! Providence isn’t kind to people who haven’t worked their guts out. In that sense, the proverb also has a ‘Fortune favors the brave’ aspect to it.”
Strong individuals. Strong culture.
As CEO, what does Yasunaga see as Mitsui’s greatest strength? “Our people,” he says, not missing a beat.
“Here at Mitsui we have a saying: ‘The individual builds the business; the business cultivates the individual.” We give people a lot of independence to get out there and initiate challenging projects. That culture of fostering strong individuals permeates the organization through and through. It’s our greatest strength—and it’s something I certainly benefited from myself.”
How does Yasunaga see his mission? He wants to create an environment where Mitsui’s open-minded culture powers next-generation growth—an environment where individual employees are free to leverage their expertise to aggressively seek out new projects.
“I’d define a strong individual as someone who’s been through enough challenging experiences in the field that they can deliver a result no matter what. Our slogan is ‘360° business innovation’—the sort of cross-sector innovation that can only occur when a number of strong individuals come together as a group and collaborate. Age is irrelevant, we’re all true professionals. We’re a collective of individuals who trust and rely on one another 100 per cent. ‘If I want to target that country, I need to speak to him.’ ‘If I want to set up a business in that region, I’ll need to work with her.’ That’s the sort of company I want Mitsui to be.”