One of the longest serving, but most underrated chiefs of the global automobile industry, Osamu Suzuki is also one of the very few to have received civilian orders of merit both in India and Pakistan. And he is a sprightly 92.
The theory is that people are either left-brained or right-brained, meaning that one side of their brain is dominant. The two sides of your brain look very much alike, but there’s a huge difference in how they process information. In Osamu San’s case, his left brain focuses on 660cc Kei-Jidosha cars in Japan that are all about economy, efficiency and optimisation of resources, space and size; while his right brain conjures up 1300cc motorcycles that are all about hedonism, power, and unabashed display of muscle. Little wonder that Osamu San, and the brand he has built, are unique in the automobile world.
Honda, BMW, Peugeot, and Mahindra, who build both cars and motorcycles have the same DNA running through both product streams. Suzuki is the exception. The car business and the motorcycle one are as different as chalk and cheese. And that is what makes Osamu San special.
The original ‘cost cutter’, he did it all silently, obsessively, and perpetually. For him, a yen saved is a yen less for the customer. His cost-cutting measures are legendary. The Hamamatsu headquarters has no receptionist, just a set of telephones with the contact numbers pasted on the table. The air-conditioning—typically around 25-26 degrees—would be switched off periodically for a few minutes. While visiting his manufacturing facilities, he can pinpoint money-saving and energy-saving issues. For example, the need to bring the ceiling lights lower to save on energy costs, moving the parts bins closer to the assembly line worker to reduce his fatigue, and more.
There are stories about him and Soichiro Honda being good friends and deciding to run their businesses on similar lines. They started with motorised bicycles post-war together. When it came to taking the car segment forward, they parted ways, Soichiro deciding to explore the US while Osamu San decided to focus on the domestic market by building small cars. That decision helped Suzuki become a global benchmark.Osamu San knows Suzuki cannot survive on its own in the future. The costs of technology and market access are too high. Toyota is possibly the best bet to take over the reins. It would preserve the ethos of the Suzuki badge and nurture it further. And, maybe, allow the 92-year-old some more time to indulge in golf.