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Creativity and strategy are top lessons for MBA alumnus

Masanori Otake and Donovan Henry

17 May 2017

Former MBA student Masanori Otake reflects on how the programme helped him become a better manager. 

President of Opto System Co. Ltd., Masanori Otake can still remember his sense of elation half way through his Lancaster MBA when his marks shot up, as he suddenly understood that his creative use of ideas and arguments was the key to good management.

Japanese education places great importance on rote learning, but this approach was not giving Otake the results he was looking for in his MBA studies (1994-1995) until a revelatory discussion with his tutors.  They told him that the reason he was not being awarded the marks he wanted was that he needed to express his opinions and ideas.

“This was a completely new way to learn,” he explains. “I learned that creativity and having opinions were important. It was a totally different way of thinking for me. I found it amazing.”

As he adapted, his marks rapidly improved and he left with a good degree result.

This mind shift has proved invaluable to him in his role as President of Opto System, a semiconductor equipment company set up by his father. In a highly-competitive and volatile market, he knows he has to be constantly thinking ahead and adapting, to keep his company strong and to protect the jobs of his employees.

Opto System designs, manufactures and services high-precision production and testing machines   for the semiconductor industry.

“Lancaster really gave me confidence and changed my personality a little bit,” muses Otake. “I had been quite an introvert, but after my year there I became the kind of person capable of starting business with foreign countries.”

His decision to take his wife and young son across the world to Lancaster to study for an MBA was made when his father asked him to join Opto System, to build up overseas business. Following his Economics degree at Waseda University in Tokyo, he had spent five years working in sales with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, including two years in Syria working on a power plant project.

When Otake decided to enter the family business, he became keenly aware of his lack of management skills. He could not afford more than one year and he needed a safe place for his wife and thenthree-year-old son to live, so Lancaster fitted the bill, especially as he was offered a family flat on the leafy campus.

“It was my first visit to the UK,” he remembers. “I was fascinated by the mixture of old and new architecture. From our flat on the roof of the Bowland college, I could see the mountains and Morecambe Bay at the same time and it was so relaxing even if the course was hard.”

He says he found the intensity of the course at the Management School highly stimulating. Tutors helped him to adapt his learning style and he soon became excited by the potential of his new ideas to his work back in Japan. His English improved and he relished the cultural exchange he had with fellow students.

Learning about strategy was the most useful single subject for Otake. Until then he had given it little thought, but had simply worked according to a formula that he had been given by his managers. Now he could take a new flexible way of thinking back to Japan to improve Opto System’s future.

His final term’s project working in manufacturing was a particularly valuable experience. He teamed up with fellow student, Donovan Henry, to tackle an apparent problem of overstocking in a Preston company, which turned out to be much more about cultural problems within the organisation and about leadership.

“The project really opened my eyes,” remembers Otake. “What looked at first to be a small overstock, turned out to be the result of many other issues - most of them cultural. It was also the first time I had ever worked with an Afro Caribbean person. Now Donovan works for me in the US office, and he is expanding our business there.”

Despite the intensity of the course, Otake allowed time to make friends from many different countries. Eating out in Lancaster was a real adventure for him and his wife, with the chance to try out Italian, Indian and Chinese food, cooked by people from their respective countries. In Japan, foreign food is cooked by Japanese people to suit the home taste.

After his return to Opto System in Japan with an MBA but no experience of management, he began testing his new knowledge to start opening up foreign markets from scratch, beginning with Taiwan, Korea and China. His efforts resulted in £10m in new overseas sales in 2007.

After difficult times facing low-cost competition from Korea and Taiwan, he took over in 2012 as President, with banks demanding a new approach to ensure their continued support. Otake was under pressure to come up with something new.

This was where his Lancaster learnings came into their own, as he rationalised the company, and was forced to make redundancies.  He says: “I had to think strategically and decide how to reposition the company. I took the decision to turn it into a global niche company with high-end customers.”

No longer was it enough to make machines for LEDs and laser diodes, which accounted for 70% sales, Opto System would diversify into other semiconductors and different industries, such as car parts and food processing. At the moment, 60% of his sales are still in Japan. “That’s why I am trying hard to expand our business in foreign countries,” explains Otake.

He speaks with great warmth about the difference that studying at Lancaster University Management School made to his life. He loved the challenge of learning management in English and still makes an effort to keep up his language. But it was strategic thinking that has made the biggest difference for him, and he says he feels that every year Opto System is successful, he is getting a big tick from Lancaster as a successful student.