Olympus Faces Major Corporate Challenges

Recent business headlines present Olympus as a company facing a serious crisis. Their sacked CEO Michael Woodford continues to draw attention to alleged corporate malpractices

The Crisis at Olympus

A good overview of the crisis was captured in a review by Digital Trends which is abstracted below:

To most consumers, Olympus is a Japanese company that makes a selection of well-regarded digital cameras. The company also dabbles in gizmos like digital voice recorders. Olympus started back in 1919 making medical thermometers and microscopes. Today it makes a huge range of medical and industrial products.

Controversy and scandal

For the last few weeks, [October-November 2011] Olympus has been surrounded by controversy and scandal. The company installed then quickly sacked Michael Woodford, its first non-Japanese CEO. It has admitted that it paid out some $687 million to Axes America as an advising fee related to the Olympus’s $2.2 billion takeover of British medical company Gyrus in 2008, roughly a third of the total price paid. Axes America has since shut down, along with the Cayman Islands company that handled the transaction.
Olympus says its relationship with Axes America ended with the stock buyback and that it has no knowledge of the advisor’s current status. Axes America and Axam Investments were operated by Japanese banker Hajime Sagawa.

Michael Woodford

On April 1, 2011, Olympus appointed Michael Woodford as the company’s president and chief executive officer, with Tsuyoshi Kikukawa shifting to chairman of the company’s board. Both were Olympus lifers. Kikukawa had been instrumental in getting Olympus into the digital camera business, although he also pursued an aggressive merger-and-acquisition strategy that sometimes rankled investors. Woodford was viewed as a solid, loyal choice for expanding Olympus’s business outside Japan, keeping the company’s core business intact, and effecting deploying cost-cutting strategies

Woodford’s dismissal

On appointment, Woodford became deeply uneasy about what he discovered about the Gyrus deal. He commissioned PriceWaterhouseCoopers to assess the Gyrus deal. PWC reported [Oct 11th 2011] that the “cost of the transaction to Olympus is extremely significant and is as a result of a number of actions taken by management which are questionable and which give cause for concern.”

The same day, Woodford wrote to chairman Kikukawa: “It is truly extraordinary and frankly unbelievable that Olympus made a series of payments approaching USD $700 million in fees to a company in the Cayman Islands whose ultimate ownership is still unknown to us, preventing the auditors from verifying that no related parties were involved.”

Two weeks later [Oct 14th 2011], Olympus removed Woodford from his roles as president and CEO roles on a unanimous vote, retaining him as a director on the board. Officially, Olympus claimed Woodford’s approach was disrupting its operations and could no longer be tolerated.

Woodford becomes a John Grisham hero

According to CBS News, Michael Woodfood became a hero from a John Grisham novel:

[Woodford] says he’s been unwittingly cast in a corporate drama of deceit and danger befitting a John Grisham novel. “Mentions of organized crime, boardroom battles, character assassination…it’s just been a surreal few weeks,” he said.

Japanese companies have long been criticized for their cozy, insider corporate culture. The Japanese themselves say that change is difficult without something called “gaiatsu,” which literally translates as “pressure from foreigners”

Shareholders around the world are demanding Woodford is reinstated and a full-scale investigation is held internally. Woodford is to meet [Dec 2011] with investigators at the Justice Department. There are allegations that organized crime in Japan helped engineer the cover-up. At stake is not just the fate Olympus, but the reputation of corporate Japan itself.

Acknowledgements

A Linked-in message from Fontas Varidakis drew LWD attention to the Olympus story, picking up many of the points and corporate dilemmas covered in this post. The image of Michael Woodford is from the Shropshire Star site.

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2 Responses to Olympus Faces Major Corporate Challenges

  1. Thanks for sharing, I knew nothing of this. I am not sure I understand why the appointed him in the first place. If they are not ready to change the corporate culture, then they should appoint an insider as CEO and watch them drive the company into bankruptcy.

  2. There’s more to come on this story I’m sure. I’m waiting for some insights from people ‘close to the story’.

    Mumford was an insider to the corporate culture but not to the Japanese culture.

    Best wishes

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