'Olympus shock' lays bare the failings that haunt corporate Japan

For budding business magnates, Olympus is a timely exercise into how not to handle a crisis, run a major company or manage the third-biggest economy.

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Master of Business Administration programmes the world over should add a new course: Olympus 101. For budding business magnates, it would be a timely exercise into how not to handle a crisis, run a major company or manage the third-biggest economy.

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It says a lot when world-weary investors hardened by the shenanigans at Enron, WorldCom, Parmalat and Wall Street are aghast at a corporate scandal. The Einsteins at Olympus, the camera and medical-supplies maker, pulled off that feat and more in a week that could not have ended soon enough for Japanese politicians and executives.

This still-unfolding story has it all: a proud company founded in 1919; the firing of a foreign president brought in to shake things up; a very un-Japanese bout of public infighting; a whiff of possible Yakuza involvement; bundles of squandered cash; clueless executives; a media frenzy; and regulators hoping the whole thing goes away.

The real intrigue has yet to come. What, if anything, will Japan do? In an ideal world, the answer is simple: the Olympus board would be fired and regulators would investigate this shameful affair to restore global confidence in Japan Inc.

The chronology began with Michael Woodford, Olympus's first non-Japanese president, being dismissed after seven months on the job for the bogus charge of cultural insensitivity. Next, Olympus denied Mr Woodford's claim that he was axed for investigating why a fortune was spent on outside advisers without explanation. Then, Olympus suddenly recalled that, oh yeah, that's right, it paid a whopping US$687 million (Dh2.52 billion) to advisers on its $2bn purchase of Gyrus Group. Now the company says it's no big deal.

The only case in which that could possibly be true, as Curtis Freeze, the founder of Prospect Asset Management, based in Honolulu, put it, is when a company "has more money than brains". Really, I'd feel better investing with Bernie Madoff or the Marx Brothers than Olympus's board. In a delicious bit of irony, Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, the Olympus chairman, was yesterday due to give a speech on "Global Social Responsibility from Japan to the World" before cancelling.

This is symptomatic of what ails Japan and comes on top of a dismal year that has included a deadly earthquake and a tsunami; an endless radiation crisis; credit downgrades; deepening deflation; a surging yen and a fifth prime minister since the Lehman Brothers shock of 2008. And now an "Olympus shock", to quote Kathy Matsui, the Goldman Sachs strategist, reminds markets of Japan's institutional failings.

This episode is about to get more attention. Nippon Life Insurance, the largest Olympus shareholder, and Harris Associates, are demanding answers after the dismissal of Mr Woodford prompted a plunge of more than 45 per cent in the stock price. Factamagazine alleged that some Olympus payments may have gone to "anti-social" elements, a euphemism for organised crime.

When I travel and speak overseas, there is a troubling lack of interest in Japan. Audiences are at full attention when talk turns to China, India or Thailand. Mention Japan, and out come the BlackBerrys.

At a time when many are predisposed to tune out Japan, officials in Tokyo need to work harder and smarter. The same holds for corporations.

Yet what can we make of Olympus's board dismissing a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report on how vast sums of cash were blown during acquisitions? The board seemed more upset about Mr Woodford studying the books than PwC's findings.

There's a punch line somewhere in here, but it's hardly a joking matter. The company may sue Mr Woodford for leaking internal information to the press. If there's any justice, securities regulators will ask Mr Kikukawa and the rest of his board some uncomfortable questions. The answers might reveal whether brains even come into play at Olympus.

* Bloomberg News