The Harvard Man In Mitsubishi's Corner Office

Does Makihara's promotion signal the rise of a new breed of executive?

Born in England and christened Bernard, but has since gone by "Ben." Alumnus of St. Paul's School and Harvard. Spent two years as a counselor at summer camp in Vermont. Assignments totaling 22 years in Seattle, Washington, New York, and London. Good friends include CEO James D. Robinson III of American Express and CEO Gerald Grinstein of Burlington Northern. Son works for Goldman Sachs, daughter for Time magazine.

Meet Minoru "Ben" Makihara, the newly named president and CEO of $123 billion Mitsubishi Corp., Japan's powerful trading firm and flagship of the country's largest keiretsu, or corporate grouping. Never before has a major Japanese company been run by someone as cosmopolitan as the 62-year-old Makihara. So although internationalization gets lots of lip service in Japan these days, Makihara's ascent to the pinnacle of Japan's business Establishment has set local business circles buzzing.

As a rule, an executive can't reach the top without the proper Japanese university credentials and much time spent at the home office. After all, he would lack the network of high-level contacts essential to success in the Japanese business world. He might also "stink of butter," the Japanese put-down for colleagues who have spent too much time abroad.

But with U.S.-Japan relations at a postwar low, Mitsubishi decided in late February that Makihara's U.S. experience mattered more. That positions him eventually to succeed Akio Morita, Sony Corp.'s 71-year-old chairman, as Japan's business ambassador to the world. "He'll be an enormously important bridge between Japan and the U.S. business-wise," says Frank A. Weil, former Commerce Under Secretary and Makihara's longtime acquaintance.

NEW DIRECTIONS. Makihara is already signaling that Mitsubishi must alter its ways. "The expectations of employees, shareholders, and the outside world are changing," he says. "So new directions have to be sought." That means making jobs more satisfying, paying the environment more heed, and giving shareholders a bigger share of profits, he says.

Makihara made his latest mark in New York, while running the big U.S. subsidiary Mitsubishi International Corp. from 1987 to 1990. His main contribution was to help guide the trading company into new investments and technologies. It was on his watch that Mitsubishi bought control of Aristech Chemical Corp. for $877 million and took half- ownership of UCAR Carbon Europe, an $850 million-a-year business. "It is novel for a trading company to invest in manufacturing," notes Robert D. Kennedy, chairman and CEO of Union Carbide Corp. When he officially takes over in June, Makihara is likely to make such acquisitions on a much larger scale.

What's more, he is a symbol of a new type of Japanese corporate leader who is "extremely comfortable in two cultures," says Kennedy. A Japanese colleague who has worked closely with Makihara says his long U.S. experience has made Makihara more informal than most top Japanese executives. "He's very open-minded," says this colleague. "The door to his office is usually open for everybody. He likes a good joke."

Yet Makihara, who rarely gets angry, is no American-style mover and shaker. "Beneath his business suit is a Japanese gown," says Weil. Makihara's daughter, Kumiko, describes her father as an intellectual. "It's difficult for me to imagine him as an aggressive businessman," she says. "He's soft-spoken, quiet, and serious. At home he never talks about work at all." She says he likes to curl up with English-language spy novels to relax.

Makihara's climb up the ladder wasn't hurt by his blue-blood Mitsubishi pedigree. His father was a Mitsubishi man who served in London and the U.S., and his wife is the great-granddaughter of Mitsubishi founder Yataro Iwasaki. Others note that Makihara, a veteran of Mitsubishi's marine products division, came from the company's "soft" side. Traditionally, the presidency has alternated between that and the "hard" side, which includes machinery and steel. This time it was the soft's turn. But company insiders insist Makihara got where he is by merit, not luck.

He steps in at a time when Mitsubishi is rolling in dough. The company is now Japan's most profitable major trader, thanks to its early shift from dependence on mere transaction fees to investments in such businesses as manufacturing plants and liquified natural gas projects in Southeast Asia. "Mitsubishi has been a leader in moving into that region," says Patricia Jennings, an analyst at Baring Securities (Japan) Ltd.

Given his U.S. expertise, Makihara says he'll probably speak out more on bilateral issues than his predecessor. In particular, Makihara is rankled by the perception that Japan's keiretsu are out not only to exclude foreigners but to take over the world. "I think that's totally off the mark," he says. If anyone can convince Americans that Japan's companies aren't hostile, Makihara can.

Robert Neff in Tokyo, with William J. Holstein in New York