TOKYO— He has the bounce and humor of a 25-year-old. At 72, Soichiro Honda, the retired founder of the Honda motorcycle and automobile company, remains pulsating with ideas and activities.
Founders of substantial businesses that grow by selling to consumers instead of buying other companies are rare in these times of sprawling conglomerates. So it is interesting to ask an entrepreneur like Honda about his personal management principles.
“The gap between companies,” says Honda, “is not so much technological as it is one of managerial philosophy.” The degree of safety in a product, he says, reflects whether a firm places a greater emphasis on short-term profits or on technological progress through research.
When he was president of his company, Honda would astound his
associates by spending most of his time, not at the central office, but at the research and development center. The center was the cutting edge of the company’s future, and that’s where he wanted to be. A self-taught engineer with over 100 patents, Honda was comfortable in the developmental trenches.
Characteristically, Honda almost never attended a board of directors’ meeting because, he says, his presence would inhibit the candor of other company directors. Better to review their decisions after they were made than to be a party to inhibiting them before they are concluded, he reasoned.
Nepotism was taboo. His son was not permitted to join the company. “A public corporation belongs to the public, not to the family,” he told this interviewer. His son wants no inheritance and wouldn’t receive one even if he did. For Honda is systematically giving away his large fortune, partly through the activities connected with the Honda Foundation.
He does not believe in conglomerates and is determined that the Honda Co. will neither buy up nor be bought up by other firms. Conglomerates, he declares, lead to “bad interpersonal relations between the acquired and acquiring companies.”
The Honda Co. has been an acknowledged technological leader in the motorcycle and automobile industry. This may not mean all that much, given the industry’s legendary stagnation. But with less than a decade of experience in building cars, Honda stunned GM and other automotive giants by perfecting the stratified charge engine and calmly informing the U.S. government that there would be no problem meeting the federal air pollution control requirements.
In the early ’70s, Japanese consumer groups accused the Honda Co. of selling a car that was dangerously unstable: The controversy was said to have affected Honda deeply even though his company refused to concede any problem with the Honda N360 model.
Now Honda is in the vanguard of air bag safety engineering and Soichiro Honda has an opportunity to leave his greatest legacy. Should Honda, with its smaller, fuel-efficient cars, also come up first with air bags in advance of the federal standards (now applicable to 1984 small-car models), motorists would be able to purchase both a fuel-efficient and safer small car. Other auto companies would then be hard-pressed to emulate Honda’s leadership.
Observers at the Honda Co. say that the founder still is without peer in his drive for innovation and his anti-bureaucratic spirit. He has just designed a safer fire escape system for the new Honda building in Tokyo and is advocating a fail-safe electric back-up device for the Tokyo subway. Half-bald, he even jokes about inventing a camera that would color baldness black.
Periodically, Honda convenes world-wide conferences on traffic safety and symposiums that focus on the human side of technology. Putting air bags early in Honda cars certainly would provide the human side to an automobile crash — one that spells life.