The Eccentric Billionaire Who Ignores Investors to Get Them Rich

NIDEC Nagamori

Shigenobu Nagamori.

Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg
  • Shigenobu Nagamori has turned Nidec into a $27 billion company
  • Japanese electronic motor maker has a war chest for deals

South of the famous temples of Kyoto, where factories and subsidized homes dot the landscape, a single skyscraper stands out. Perched at its top is Shigenobu Nagamori, replete in a luminous green tie, pocket square and spectacles, holding forth on his distinctive business ways.

If you work for me, the billionaire chief executive officer of Nidec Corp. says, you’ll never be fired for lacking talent, but don’t count on taking many holidays. If you buy shares in the $27 billion electronics giant I started in a shack beside my mother’s farmhouse, forget about asking for bigger dividends. Even if you’re Masayoshi Son, the second-richest man in Japan, you can expect an earful when I think you’re wrong.

“I’m a strange man, an odd man,” Nagamori, 71, says in an interview from Nidec’s headquarters in Japan’s ancient capital, with his old prefabricated shed preserved in the building’s lobby 19 floors below. “I push against the grain.”

As everyone from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to activist investor Dan Loeb urges Japan Inc. to listen more to shareholders and update traditional labor practices, Nagamori is ignoring calls for change -- and trouncing his peers in the stock market. He’s an outspoken reminder that for some Japanese companies, an approach that looks strange by the standards of Wall Street can still deliver outsized returns.

Nagamori’s firm has bucked a slump in Japan’s Topix index in 2016, advancing 5.3 percent through Thursday as earnings climbed to a record for the third straight year. Nidec’s 457 percent rally from its global financial crisis low in 2008 through Thursday was about eight times bigger than that of the benchmark stock gauge, while the company’s return on equity stands at 12.1 percent, versus 6.8 percent for the Topix. Nidec’s shares fell 0.3 percent in Tokyo on Friday.

For a QuickTake explainer on reforming Japan Inc., click here.

Savvy deal-making has been key to Nagamori’s success. Since its founding in 1973, Nidec has purchased more than 40 companies, including the $1.2 billion acquisition of Emerson Electric Co.’s motor, drive and power-generation businesses this month. Before that deal was announced, Nagamori said he had a 1 trillion yen ($9.8 billion) war chest to expand Nidec’s business of making precision motors for everything from refrigerators to cars. He’s looking at areas including self-driving automobiles and the internet of things.

“When it comes to M&A, Nagamori is the best in Japan,” says Mitsushige Akino, a Tokyo-based executive officer at Ichiyoshi Asset Management Co., which oversees $1.2 billion. “As an investor, I feel safe with him.”

Nidec hasn’t been immune to the turbulence in Japanese markets. While the stock was up this year through Thursday, it was 18 percent below an all-time high reached in August 2015. Analysts see little upside over the next 12 months, with the average share-price target price tracked by Bloomberg just 2.4 percent above Nidec’s closing level on Wednesday.

Safety Net

Succession could be the company’s biggest risk, according to Akino. If the founder ever needs to step down and the transition isn’t smooth, Nidec could lose its “Nagamori premium,” the money manager says. The stock trades at 28 times estimated earnings, more than twice the average for Topix companies.

If Nagamori is right, there’s no need to worry about a change at the top anytime soon. More than four decades into the job, he still works every day and vows to stay on in some capacity until 2030, his target for increasing annual revenue to 10 trillion yen from 1.2 trillion yen in the year ended March. Nagamori says he’ll choose a successor by focusing on the same metric he uses for promotions: who makes the most money for Nidec.

Shigenobu Nagamori.
Shigenobu Nagamori.
Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

His philosophy on managing the rest of Nidec’s employees may look odd to western eyes, though it’s hardly unique in Japan. Staff never have to worry about being dismissed, as long as they put in the required hours. And if someone can’t do a particular job, Nagamori will find them another role.

It’s a common way of thinking in a country where businesses, rather than the state, often provide the social safety net. Looking after employees, Nagamori says, is key to a company’s success. He eats every meal with groups of staff to develop a sense of camaraderie from the top down.

Cleaning Toilets

That doesn’t mean life at Nidec is easy. Even in a nation renowned for devoted workers, the company stands out for its demands on employees. Meetings, Nagamori says, are held on weekends or after regular tasks are done. New staff are sometimes told to clean toilets, and taking days off is seen as lazy.

Nagamori makes no apologies.

“These days, if you tell people to put everything into their work, you’re soon dubbed a black company,” he says, referring to the Japanese term for firms that flout labor standards. “I have no problem saying that. If you don’t work, you lose. The only ones I can’t stand are layabouts.”

He has just as little patience for shareholders who rub him the wrong way. Some have complained about dividends, with Nidec’s stock offering an expected yield of just 0.9 percent, versus 2.3 percent for the Topix. Nagamori says the cash is better used to fund deals.

Big Goals

He considers employees a bigger priority than investors, arguing that an effective workforce will ultimately create the most long-term value for shareholders.

“When I’m asked by investors, I tell them they’re No. 1, but it’s not what I really think,” he says. “I speak my mind if shareholders ask strange questions at the annual general meeting. I tell them it would be better if the likes of you didn’t own our shares. I say I can’t choose my shareholders, but you can choose the company you invest in.”

Nagamori says he has no problem with activist investors targeting Japan’s underperforming companies after Abe introduced rules to make domestic firms more responsive. The activists never complain about Nidec, he says.

The eccentric billionaire is the first to admit his own penchant for setting big goals and making them public. And while he sees the same attribute in SoftBank Group Corp.’s Son, even the Japanese tech mogul sometimes falls short of Nagamori’s standards.

About a year or two ago, Nagamori, a SoftBank director, confronted Son after discovering he was having second thoughts about SoftBank’s $21.6 billion takeover of U.S. carrier Sprint Corp. Nagamori, who considers Son an “extremely impressive individual,” urged him to go to America and turn the company around. Son has since stuck with the business.

Don’t Sell

“I told him he mustn’t sell. If you just sell when things are going badly, you’re nothing more than an investor,” Nagamori says. “I told him I can’t give advice on investing, but I can give any amount of advice on running businesses. If you’re going to sell the business, there’s no value in having me around.”

Nagamori decries what he sees as a lack of ambition in Japan. Too many young people are content with only “small happiness,” like going home to their children in the evening rather than working late to become their company’s next president, he says.

Atop Nidec’s headquarters, his green-framed glasses -- the company color -- glinting in the afternoon sun, Nagamori sounds surprised when asked about his dreams after amassing a net worth estimated by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index at $3.7 billion.

He hardly pauses before giving an answer.

“Making the company bigger and leaving it behind.”

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