29 Apr 2016

The CEO whistle-blower

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 29 April 2016

It's a tale of corporate corruption that reads like a thriller. After working for camera and healthcare giant Olympus for 30 years, Michael Woodford came across a company secret... a $1.7 billion fraud secret. And to make matters even more complicated, he had just become the multinational’s president in Japan.

Micheal Woodford and Tsuyoshi Kikukawa

Micheal Woodford and Tsuyoshi Kikukawa Photo: supplied

Woodford first discovered the allegations against his corporation in a Japanese magazine in 2011. He quickly confronted his CEO and “uncle” Kikukawa about the matter, to which he admitted some of it was true.

Woodford then spent $200,000 of Olympus money on a report which revealed that the company was guilty of money laundering and other crimes that were “so much worse”. He was promptly fired, which is practically unheard of in Japan. He then went to the media with the information. In fear that the Japanese mafia would come after him for doing so, he immediately fled Tokyo.

Woodford has since written a book about this experience called Exposure, and the tale was later made into a documentary called Samurai and Idiots: The Olympus Affair.

Samurai and Idiots: The Olympus Affair is screening at the Documentary Edge Festival this month (4-15 May in Wellington and 18-29 May in Auckland).

Read an edited snapshot of the conversation:

Kathryn Ryan: You were the first foreigner, or gaijin, to run the company. How did you rise up through the ranks, first in the UK and then in Japan?

Michael Woodford: Unlike the other gaijins I worked my way up from the bottom. I worked as a salesman and in Japan they call that a salaryman, someone who gives life to the company, rather than being parachuted in to cut costs or whatever else.

KR: Who supported you in becoming president and what was your relationship with them like?

MW: I was chosen by Kikukawa san. He’d been president for ten years when he chose me to be his successor. He was my favorite uncle if you like… I thought I was his protege. It was quite a paternalistic relationship. I felt warm and indebted to him in many ways… He knew the names of my children, my wife. He always showed an interest in my life.

KR: How did you go about unravelling the story after that?  

MW: I arranged a meeting with Kikukawa that lunch time and he was annoyed with me, my secretary made it clear, because I insisted that I saw him that day… The first thing I noticed as I walked into the board room was in front of them was a large platter of sushi, and it had a little flag in it which told me it was from the most expensive store in the fish market and it would cost well over $1000. Yet where I was to sit there was a manky tuna sandwhich, still wrapped in the clingfilm. If you know anything about Japan, everything is done with elegance and grace, and I instantly knew that this was to slap me [and tell me that] in the food chain at Olympus, Kikukawa was the luxury platter and I was the manky sandwich, and not to forget it… Anyway I didn’t touch the food. I challenged him. I said, “I’ve just been to Tokyo, why wasn’t I told? And his answer to me was, “Michael you are the president, you are too busy. You shouldn’t need to worry about these domestic issues”. And I started to push him, I said “Is it true?” and to my surprise he said, “some of it”... I’d say more that 80 percent of Japanese business leaders said I should have kept my mouth shut. What I did was make no noise, it was white collar crime it did no harm, and I bit the hand that fed me. I betrayed my company.

Kathryn Ryan talks to Micheal Woodford, the British Executive and former President and CEO of Olympus, the Japanese camera and endoscope maker.

Micheal Woodford has also recounted his experiences in his book Exposure, and the tale has been made into a documentary, Samurai and Idiots: The Olympus Affair.