Manufacturing

In the dreary annals of presentations about corporate values, ABN Amro chairman Gerrit Zalm’s recent performance for the bank’s annual cabaret as his brothel-keeping “sister” Priscilla will take some beating.

Eiji Toyoda was the man who taught the world’s production workers Japanese. If you know kaizen means continuous improvement, and use kanban inventory tags to eliminate muda, or waste, then Toyoda, who died recently, was your sensei.

Even by China’s standards, Wuhan Iron & Steel is enormous. As we drive along the four-lane highway beside the 22 square-kilometre site – with its eight blast furnaces, hot and cold rolling mills, port on the Yangtze River and Red Steel City workers’ town where 300,000 people live – the scale of Mao Zedong’s favourite steelworks is staggering.

Andrew Hill

French industry minister Arnaud Montebourg told: "How stupid do you think we are?" Getty Images

French Socialists and American chief executives make awkward bedfellows at the best of times. Just how awkward is evident from the extraordinary letter Maurice “Morry” M. Taylor – nicknamed “The Grizz” for his uncompromising negotiating style – sent to Arnaud Montebourg, France’s industry minister.

“How stupid do you think we are?” was Mr Taylor’s response to Mr Montebourg’s attempt to find out if Titan, the tyremaker Mr Taylor heads, would take over part of Goodyear’s factory in Amiens. Earlier efforts by Goodyear to forge a deal with Titan foundered on union opposition, which has not endeared French workers to the Titan CEO, who claims they “get paid high wages but work only three hours”. Read more

Andrew Hill

TNT headquarters, Hoofddorp. Getty Images

Unless you’re an avid reader of Dutch newspapers you may have missed the mini-drama playing out behind the long-running UPS attempt to take over TNT Express, which ended on Monday when Brussels said it would block the deal.

At the height of the discussions with the European Commission last September, Marie-Christine Lombard, TNT Express’s chief executive, resigned abruptly. She went on to join competitor Geodis, a French express and logistics group, in the same role. Read more

Andrew Hill

Cerberus plans to sell its stake in gunmaker. Getty Images

The 12th and most difficult labour of Hercules was to vanquish Cerberus, the three-headed hound guarding the gates of the Underworld – without using weapons.

How appropriate, then, that California State Teachers’ Retirement System (Calstrs) has disarmed Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity firm, so quickly and comprehensively. On Tuesday, Cerberus said it would sell its stake in Freedom Group, manufacturer of one of the weapons used in last week’s Sandy Hook school shooting.

There are obvious reasons why Calstrs, which was reviewing its investment in Cerberus, moved so fast. In fact, it seems somewhat extraordinary that it had not previously noticed and severed the indirect link between its beneficiaries’ retirement funds and gun manufacturers. It is also arguable whether divestment by Cerberus – presumably to another, less sensitive buyer – will achieve real policy change. But it is a start. Read more

Like a man with a broken umbrella trying to hail a cab in a downpour, the maker of the famous black London taxi is clinging to its last shreds of hope. Last week Manganese Bronze announced it was no longer a going concern and intended to appoint administrators.

Andrew Hill

Add another episode to the saga of the overworked modern chief executive: Akzo Nobel announced on Tuesday that Ton Büchner, appointed to the Dutch company only in April, will take a “leave of absence” having been “diagnosed with temporary fatigue“.

It is all reminiscent of Lloyds Banking Group’s decision to give António Horta-Osório, the UK company’s chief executive, a rest last November, to get over insomnia and exhaustion. The Portuguese CEO has since recovered – sufficiently to trounce the FT’s banking editor at tennis a couple of months ago. Read more

Barack Obama has labelled Mitt Romney an “Outsourcer-in-Chief” in his latest campaign ads. He’s tapping into a deep well of suspicion about a decades-old business practice.

Andrew Hill

I’m fascinated by the first part in a new FT series on manufacturing, led by our expert Peter Marsh, who has a new book coming out on the topic.

In particular, I love the bar chart in this interactive graphic about the “seven ages of industry“ (click on the “chart” tab when it opens). Read more

The 1993 invention of a high-brightness, blue, light-emitting diode, which opened the way for the now-ubiquitous white LED, is often told as a tale of against-all-odds innovation by a maverick genius. When Nichia of Japan ordered researcher Shuji Nakamura to stop the expensive work on the project it had initially funded, he ploughed on. He secretly sought patents for his breakthrough. He even triggered several explosions in his laboratory.

Andrew Hill

“Day by day Volkswagen… appears less like a public company, and more like a complex oligarchy.” That’s how The Economist began a critique of the German carmaker’s flawed corporate governance – in December 2005.

Not much has changed since, as the latest developments in Wolfsburg suggest. In spite of periodic protests about governance, Ferdinand Piëch, VW’s chairman, has reinforced his hold over the group and is expected to seek another five-year term in the chair. The latest news is that his wife, Ursula, will stand for nomination to the board. This may be, as the FT wrote on Sunday, part of “a fairly well-established tradition of spouses taking up powerful positions at German companies”, citing the board positions held by Friede Springer at Axel Springer, and Liz Mohn, at Bertelsmann. But to anybody outside this tradition of family-controlled companies, it looks distinctly odd. As Dow Jones pointed out in its account, “there are no reports…. that would suggest she has any high-profile corporate management experience“. Read more

Andrew Hill

General Electric’s thinking on leadership has shifted, according to an article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal: from breadth to depth. The WSJ writes:

[GE] for decades had made a rigorously applied but generic management tool kit central to its identity. Like all companies, GE wants some of both traits in its leaders, but the balance has tipped toward expertise.

I’m doubtful that the shift is quite as earth-shaking as the WSJ implies. Expertise is one of several attributes GE has long sought in its leaders, along with External Focus, Clear Thinking, Imagination & Courage, and Inclusiveness. In his 2010 letter to shareholders, chief executive Jeff Immelt added some new ones – including the eccentric-sounding goal that its leaders should be “humble listeners”. It already adds up to a pretty demanding checklist, as I wrote at the time. Read more

The pun proved irresistible. “Mystery Ends, Mistry Begins”, ran the headline in India’s Economic Times on the appointment last week of Cyrus Mistry to succeed Ratan Tata at the head of the eponymous tea-to-steel holding company. If the succession was a mystery, it looked to have a pretty feeble final twist.

Andrew Hill

I think most obituaries of Robert Galvin – who helped take Motorola from a family firm to a $11bn leader in mobile phones – understate his contribution to management practice, for he was, at the very least, the godfather of Six Sigma.

The omission is understandable. Six Sigma – which focuses managers obsessively on improving quality and eliminating defects – was the process improvement technique of choice for large companies in the 1990s, but it seems to have faded from public view recently. I spent a day at General Electric’s Crotonville leadership development centre in September and I didn’t hear Six Sigma mentioned once. Yet 15 years ago, when Jack Welch was in his pomp, the air would have been thick with boasts about how many “black belt” leaders of Six Sigma initiatives GE had bred. Read more