September 29, 2008 / 4:20 AM / in 9 years

Suzuki CEO sees no relief from race to survive

TOKYO (Reuters) - With the Big Three U.S. automakers struggling as consumers shun their gas-guzzling vehicles, Suzuki Motor Corp looks in an enviable position with its line-up of tiny, fuel-saving cars.

That, and its mile-long lead in the nascent Indian market, have catapulted the once stolid car maker to No. 10 in the world measured by number of cars sold in the first half of this year, and lifted its profits steadily for nearly a decade.

But if you ask Osamu Suzuki, the 78-year-old chief executive who has held the post for the last 30 years, it’s against all the odds that the company, founded by his wife’s grandfather, has made it this far.

“When I reflect on what the industry looked like back in 1978, it was the Golden Age for the Big Three,” said Suzuki, who joined the company in 1958.

“And every 10 years or so, there’s been a big change -- whether it’s trade liberalization or the introduction of emissions standards -- and each time, competition got tougher. It still amazes me that we even survived these 50 years.”

It’s tempting to dismiss Suzuki’s comments as good-natured if somewhat false modesty but engage him in conversation, and the sense of crisis is palpable.

“If, on top of the volumes, we had our own hybrid, our own fuel-cell technology, our own diesel, CNG and ethanol cars, then yes, we would be a ‘top’ company,” he told Reuters this month.

“But we aren’t doing any of that. We don’t even know how to spell hybrid. Right now, we’re just trying to keep up -- not even catch up -- with the crowd.”

For an interview with Osamu Suzuki, click

Suzuki says it must be open to any future, including the possibility of being taken over, to ensure its survival.

“If it were the best option for Suzuki, I would sell a 51 percent stake in a heartbeat, to GM or whomever. We simply are in no position to be selective.”

It’s a strong statement for someone who is widely accepted as the architect of present-day Suzuki Motor.

His thrifty ways have earned him and the company a reputation of master penny-pincher -- an art in an industry of low margins.

In the 1970s, Suzuki saved the little-known car maker from the brink by convincing Toyota Motor to supply engines that cleared new emissions regulations that Suzuki didn’t have.

His first big and risky move at the helm shortly after was to invest a year’s worth of Suzuki’s earnings in India to build a national car maker in what was then a closed and lagging economy.

Its dominance in India has made it the object of envy, but with that market now slowing down too, the prospects are tough.

“The strong growth in India -- that’s yesterday’s story,” Suzuki said. “You can’t afford to talk about the past in this day and age.”

Despite his self-deprecating humour -- when asked once why Suzuki’s cars were selling so well, Suzuki responded that it was because he had stopped telling product engineers how to do their job -- he clearly feels he’s the best person to steer the company.

Every time he is asked how long he intends to stay -- a recurring question at his ripe age -- he seeks to allay concerns with a humourous “forever” or “until the day I die,” citing his weekly golf as proof of his sound health.

But the lack of a succession plan clearly causes some anxiety in the company’s workforce.

“Of course we’re worried,” said one long-time employee. “For better or worse, he’s called all the shots and made this company what it is now.”

In fact, Suzuki had been preparing to go.

In one of the clearest statements of his intentions to date, Suzuki told Reuters in a recent interview that he had intended to pass the torch at the annual shareholders’ meeting this June to his late son-in-law and then-senior managing director Hirotaka Ono, who died from pancreatic cancer in December.

“I spent seven years grooming him for the job, but unfortunately he passed away,” a somber Suzuki said.

“When I think about having to spend another seven years on someone else... well, it wears me down.”

In typical Suzuki style, though, the dejection is fleeting.

“On the other hand, that fuels my engine, you know?”

Editing by Lincoln Feast

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