Can a major Japanese company remain focused on the domestic market and operate as an old boys’ club? For Jean-Marc Gilson, the Belgian who took the helm at Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings in April, the answer is a resolute no. He’s making clear that it’s time to change how the company looks and operates and where it does so.
“The share of women managers will rise to 30% during my term as CEO,” Gilson told reporters at a press conference last month, where he laid out his vision for Mitsubishi. Today, fewer than 7% of its managers are women. He also said the company needed to reduce the number of subsidiaries, adopt a more international outlook, and shed its system of seniority-based promotion.
As Japan’s largest chemical company, Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings has 70,000 employees and recorded nearly $30 billion in sales in its latest fiscal year. Structured as a conglomerate, it comprises over 650 subsidiaries engaged in businesses as varied as basic plastics, performance chemicals, pharmaceuticals, gelatin capsules, and specialty gases used for semiconductor manufacturing.
The disparate empire that is today’s Mitsubishi is inward looking, Gilson observed. In its most recent fiscal year, 57% of sales were in Japan. The domestic focus is largely the result of a system of lifetime employment that remains in place at large Japanese companies, Gilson said.
“People work at a single company for a long time and know only about this company,” he said. “They are well informed about the company, but it also means that they have small chance of extracting information from the outside or, in other words, they have limited chance of learning different ways.” The current Mitsubishi culture is one that values cultural homogeneity, Gilson added.
A seasoned manager of international businesses, he has some perspective on Japan’s chemical industry. Gilson lived in the country from 2005 to 2010 while he headed the Asian operations of Dow Corning and led the joint venture Dow Corning Toray. He became the CEO of Avantor Performance Materials in 2011 and joined Mitsubishi from the French biobased materials producer Roquette, where he was also CEO.
A committee led by a Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings board member, Takayuki Hashimoto, selected Gilson for his international experience. It is unusual but not unprecedented for non-Japanese people to hold senior positions in large Japanese companies. Eric Johnson, an American, has been CEO of the specialty chemical producer JSR since 2019.
Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings has placed non-Japanese people in senior roles before. In 2000, its largest subsidiary, Mitsubishi Chemical, appointed George Stephanopoulos, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, chief technology officer. In 2014, Glenn Fredrickson, a professor of chemical engineering and materials at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was named CTO of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings. And the firm's current CTO is Larry Meixner, an American with a PhD in physical chemistry.
Gilson’s vision for Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings is to simplify its structure and revitalize its culture. “We don’t need over 600 companies headquartered in 43 countries,” he said. “We don’t need so many.”
His ambition to merge or combine smaller subsidiaries will be accompanied by steps to bolster some core companies and businesses. A prime example is Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma, which Gilson hopes to turn into a $10 billion-per-year drug firm with solid roots in Europe and the US; the unit had sales of $3.5 billion last year. “They have excellent products in the pipeline but can’t fully benefit because they have no access to the global market,” he said. “We’ll continue to invest in Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma.”
In addition, Gilson said, Mitsubishi is considering building a large plant in Geismar, Louisiana, to make methyl methacrylate (MMA), the raw material for acrylic polymers like Plexiglas. Making use of Mitsubishi’s Alpha process, the plant would be the largest of its kind in the world. The company has not yet made a final decision on the project. “We need market growth and a partner,” Gilson said. If the project goes ahead, it will likely result in the closure of a less competitive MMA plant, besides the one in Texas the company has already closed, he added.
In contrast with this possible expansion abroad, Mitsubishi’s petrochemical business in Japan is at risk of being pared down because of its dim prospects, Gilson said. “Winners in the petrochemical industry are those who have acquired low-cost energy,” he said. But Japan has traditionally been hampered by high energy costs.
Gilson lamented that the nation has not devised a new energy policy for its petrochemical industry. “We urgently need the Japanese government to formulate appropriate policies for petrochemical operations, including oil refining,” he said. “At present, it is very difficult to decide how we should position the petrochemical business while reviewing our portfolio.”
Mikiya Yamada, a stock analyst at Mizuho Securities, says the outlook for Japan’s petrochemical sector—and, by extension, Mitsubishi’s—is poor. That’s a problem, because many of Mitsubishi’s profitable products are built from its petrochemical raw materials. “Unless Japan’s petrochemical industry reorganizes itself, it will not be able to ensure sufficient building blocks whereby it commercializes high-value-added products,” Yamada says.
Though the analyst is impressed with the intellectual property Mitsubishi has built up across multiple businesses, he adds that “it has expanded excessively the scope of its business, resulting in poor efficiency.”
One reason for the company’s poor efficiency is its low level of digitization. At the press conference, Gilson said, “Mitsubishi lags behind its US and European counterparts by 10–15 years” in this area.
Gilson said that he will accelerate the digitization drive but that his top concern is increasing Mitsubishi’s gender diversity. He promised to go so far as hiring professionals from outside the company—a move that would be rare for Japan. “I will promote employees on the basis of open competition between males and females, and it will be open to outside candidates,” he said. “The goal of gender diversity must be achieved by all means.”
Yuki Ota, managing director of Cicom Brains, a gender diversity consulting firm based in Tokyo, is optimistic that Gilson can achieve his goal. His strength is that he doesn’t follow the conventional Japanese wisdom of putting a premium on organizational homogeneity, she says. The goal of 30% women managers is highly achievable, Ota adds. On the board, for example, increasing female representation to 30% can be done by appointing just four women directors. The company already appointed one in July. Below board level, Ota says, it will be a matter of creating a “pipeline” of female managers.
It’s hard to reform the culture of a company that is financially struggling. But Gilson’s first quarter at Mitsubishi coincided with a sharp improvement in its results. For the April–June quarter, the first of its current fiscal year, the company reported net income more than six times what it reported 1 year ago.
“My mission is to increase earnings and decrease debt in a short period of time and bring us back on the track of growth in the medium and long term,” Gilson said.
Though he can’t claim much credit for the earnings improvement in his first quarter on the job, Gilson is still off to an auspicious start. His work on changing a well-entrenched corporate culture will likely prove far more challenging.
Katsumori Matsuoka is a freelance writer based in Japan.
This story was updated on Sept. 13, 2021, to correct the number of employees at Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings. It is 70,000, not 54,000. The story was also updated to note that among the firm's non-Japanese executives is its chief technology officer, Larry Meixner.