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Published on Friday, 05 Apr 2013
Michael Shih
Photo: Berton Chang

Fujitsu regional CEO Michael Shih uses his fear of falling behind to stay ahead

Michael Shih admits that just like his management hero – former Intel CEO and author of Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Grove – he is also prone to having his fair share of paranoid moments.

“I always worry about competitors getting ahead of me in thinking of new business models or new ways of helping customers,” Shih, CEO of Fujitsu Hong Kong and Fujitsu (China) Holdings, says. “It all comes down to whether we can think of new ways of using ICT [information and communications technology] infrastructures to help our customers make more money and create new businesses [before others].”

Taiwan-born Shih has been at Japanese technology giant Fujitsu ever since graduating from the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. He remembers telling his job interviewer at the time: “If you offer me a job in Tokyo, I’ll tell you that I will go right away.” Even though he didn’t know a word of Japanese, he was fascinated with the mystique of what was then the second biggest economy in the world.

He got his wish and spent two and a half years in Japan before being assigned to Taipei for three years. This was followed by a three-year stint in Singapore, before being posted to Hong Kong for five years. He is now based in Shanghai, where he oversees Fujitsu’s overall business strategy and direction in China. He also maintains overall responsibility for the IT systems, solutions and services businesses in mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau.

With a semblance of permanence evidently not part of his job description, Shih finds it best to avoid sticking to any sort of daily routine. In the past he was an avid cyclist. He also used to set aside ten minutes every morning to think about how he had performed the previous day and what he was going to do in the day ahead. Ever since he moved to China, however, he has had to forego such activities.

“In China, every day is full of surprises. Even over lunch, things can happen very quickly and dramatically,” he says. “I always remind myself to expect surprises, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. I try not to have too many things which are indispensable, so I won’t get upset if I can’t have them. Too many things can make you upset these days. Having nothing indispensable is actually something that is indispensable for my work right now.”

Shih says many people are mistaken in thinking that Japanese companies are very rigid, too polite and dominated by rules. In his 21 years with Fujitsu, he says he has been allowed to explore many new avenues which have included buying companies, investing in start-ups and setting up his own engineering team to pursue R&D projects. He never faced strong opposition from company headquarters.

That does not mean things have always gone well and he admits to having gone through a few tough times. After committing an investment mistake that resulted in a big loss for the company, he took full responsibility and immediately tendered his resignation – as is expected of every honourable Japanese warrior. Fujitsu, though, didn’t let him off so easily.

“My boss said it was too easy a way out for me,” Shih says. “They told me to stay, learn a lesson, and make the money back. To be honest, I have tried to leave quite a few times. But I never made it.”

He stays not because of the pay or the technology, but because of the company itself. “It’s the people and the culture that allow me to thrive and explore. It’s about confidence. They encourage me to try new things. I have made a lot of mistakes, but this company still allows me to push the envelope,” he says.

He similarly looks up to leaders who have created successful companies on the back of building good internal culture. “Culture makes a company sustainable,” he says. “It’s not about one technology, one person or one set of rules. If you can build a good, sustainable culture inside a company, the company will keep reinventing itself.”

Shih’s management style has evolved into an amalgamation of American, Japanese and Chinese influences, which is no surprise given his background.

“American management is management by objective, where the CEO makes quick decisions with or without consensus. Japanese management means managing people and businesses with consistency and patience and taking a long-term view. Chinese management is about being dynamic. There’s nothing logical or illogical in China. There’s only fact. You always need to be ready to add a Chinese touch so that your staff, customers and society can understand you,” he says.

In its most recent fiscal year, Fujitsu spent 238 billion yen (about HK$20 billion) on R&D. Despite the massive outlay, Shih believes that focusing on technology alone is not enough. He considers it his biggest challenge to lead his company in helping customers solve their problems and create more value in their businesses.

“How do we connect our technologies and expertise outside of this region with what customers are facing in Hong Kong, Macau and China? By being a group of local people who understand where, what and how to get those technologies,” he says. “At the same time, we should be able to localise that technology, expertise and know-how into something that could be applied in solving customers’ issues.”

When it comes to driving innovation, he says the business model is just as important as ground-breaking technology. “The business model needs to be run in two important ways. The first is to make sure it’s bottom-up – the voice of the rank and file must be heard. The second is that, in risky and difficult assignments, the head himself must take responsibility. He has to take a project as his personal project,” he says.

The cloud plays a vital role in how Fujitsu intends to deliver new services to customers. “The cloud makes your business and your ICT environment more affordable, flexible and scalable,” Shih says. “What new applications can you think of to tap into the cloud? If you have a mobile terminal and cloud infrastructure, you can tap into the same information and share the same database no matter where you go.”

In this exciting new world, he says, it’s no longer about selling a piece of hardware or software. “It’s about thinking how to help your customers create new values and carve out new businesses. The technology is there already.”

Shih’s responsibilities see him spend anywhere up to 250 days on the road every year, which means that he tries to spend as much time as he can with his family when he gets the chance.

“I have to make my wife feel that I’m well-managed. I have to make her trust me,” he says. “One time, my wife told me I was worse than a hotel guest because I didn’t even check in and check out. That’s why I try to stay in close contact with my family and try to spend the weekend with them as much as possible. I also want them to appreciate my presence.”


The five gadgets that changed Michael Shih’s life
•    Laptop  “These appeared just in time when I was starting my career in the 1990s.”
•    Mobile phone  “It changed my life and career.”
•    Palm PDA  “The first time I was able to organise my schedules.”
•    Blackberry  “Now I could read e-mail everywhere.”
•    Smartphone  “Combined the merits of all the above four to allow me to do anything, anywhere.”

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