East meets West: Q&A with Alpine Electronics UK

By Matthew Beecham | 12 August 2008

The Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Amity and Commerce was signed on 26 August 1858 by Lord Elgin and the then representatives of the Japanese government, giving Japan semi-colonial status. Although an unequal treaty, it formed the basis for diplomatic relations to be established between both countries and for mutual exchange to begin. Despite many ups and downs since then, both island nations have learned and gained a lot from each other, writes Matthew Beecham.

In this feature, Shigehiro Inoue, managing director of Alpine Electronics UK, comments on the experience of a Japanese manager working in the UK.  Highly experienced and a long serving employee of Alpine with 33 years’ service, Inoue San came to Coventry after similar placements in the US and Europe.  After spending over two-thirds of his working life outside of Japan, one of his most pertinent observations is the differing position within the hierarchy that engineers hold around the world, noting that in the UK, it is not as high as other countries.

just-auto: What has brought you to the UK?

Shigehiro Inoue: The UK is a key market for Alpine with important customers including Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin and Honda. Alpine was seeking a replacement for the previous UK managing director. We needed to make a seamless change to continue to deliver to our customers. I have extensive experience of aftermarket and OEM and have already worked in other Alpine overseas affiliates including Germany and could therefore provide the requisite skills with a smooth changeover. I have worked for nearly twenty years in the US so language was not a concern.   

just-auto: Does Alpine have many Japanese workers in its affiliates? 

Shigehiro Inoue: This was particularly true in the past but is becoming less the case.  We do also recruit Japanese speakers locally for some key functions, for example Seihan (stock planning) where is this extensive communication with the mother company in Iwaki.  This is a strong requirement in this area because we must ensure excellent contact for shipping and delivery. With long lead times, we need to ensure efficient communication in this area.  We also have a Japanese colleague here in Corporate Planning, again providing an essential communications route to and from headquarters.

just-auto: Is this a strategy from headquarters? 

Shigehiro Inoue: The strategy to have a representative in the affiliate came from headquarters. This has two roles; first, to help instill the Alpine values to employees and customers in the local market. Secondly for our less experienced staff from Japan, it provides an opportunity for them to learn more about our customers and the challenges their colleagues face in the local market.  It obviously helps communication too.  It is worth noting that we have a similar programme for employees in the affiliates to work in Japan for short or long periods.  This is open to all areas such as engineers and sales people.  We have people that have enjoyed the experience so much that they have been able to stay for an extended period.  I think this is an excellent opportunity for our staff to gain experience in another culture.  It also helps them in the future as they have a greater understanding of processes and can factor this into their work planning.

just-auto: What are the main differences between Japanese and Western working practices?
Shigehiro Inoue: This year happens to be the 150th anniversary since the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Amity and Commerce (first treaty between UK and Japan in history) was ratified in 1858. I think there are similarities and differences but the key thing is we work well and this is delivering exceptional products to our customers.  I would like to think we are highly compatible and this is why we have been so successful in the US and Europe.

just-auto: What have you implemented to improve working?

Shigehiro Inoue: Alpine in the UK is already a mature organization but I have implemented some measures to streamline operations and I have introduced a Business Unit Management concept. The plan is for me to support the organisation to allow it to meet the expectations of our clients.  I have an excellent and dedicated workforce in the UK and I have to support them in any way I can.  There can be frustrations and as the manager, I must provide support, guidance and offer my experience to find solutions or improvements. These can be small or significant but improvements nonetheless.

just-auto: Are cultural differences as large as they once were?
Shigehiro Inoue: The cultural differences don’t really concern me.  As UK has the gentlemanship, Japan has Bushi-do. There are an increasing number of areas of commonality. These days, money has no borders, we are engaged in an international business world.  No matter how different our cultural backgrounds are, we are living in the same world where many common and same rules apply. If our corporate values take don’t take into the International environment, then we can never succeed.

just-auto: Is being closer to the customer bringing benefits to Alpine?

Shigehiro Inoue: Certainly. This is part of the reason Alpine invests so heavily in local Evaluation Centres near to our customers. For example, our centre in Coventry has a vehicle sized EMC chamber as well as a lighting room, electronics laboratory.  This allows us to do more work locally, including writing some software. It also improves access to prototype vehicles. As vehicle development becomes more virtual then there are limited development cars available.  Historically an OEM would send a car out to Japan for suppliers to use but this is now rare.  Our secure site allows us to get more access to a vehicle and work more closely with the OEM’s engineers.