Masahiko Mori The Monk and the Machine

With Japan’s DMG Mori Seiki making a bid for control of what once was German machine tool maker Gildemeister, many are wondering what drives the company patriarch.
Masahiko Mori, chief executive of Japanese machine tool maker DMG Mori Seiki.

Every two years, the bosses of Japan’s machine tools industry meet to cut deals at the JIMTOP trade fair in Tokyo.

But last October, Masahiko Mori instead took half an hour to talk to 22 Swiss machinery students about his family-run firm, DMG Mori Seiki Co. and the Japanese market.

The outgoing Japanese manager, who chatted comfortably in English, clearly impressed the Swiss students.

“He’s at ease with non-Japanese and is very interested in people,” said Roger Zbinden, director of Switzerland’s business development in Tokyo.

That will come as a relief to many in Germany, where Mr. Mori hopes to take a majority stake in the machine tools maker previously known as Gildemeister.

Called DMG Mori Seiki AG since 2013 after the Japanese bought a 27 percent stake, Mr. Mori wants to up his share to 75 percent. Seiki is the abbreviated Japanese expression for precision machinery.

“Japanese industry and German rigor are a dangerous combination,” a rival told the Austrian publication Industriemagazin.

Besides putting the fear of God into competitors, how does the 53-year-old patriarch of the family-run Japanese business tick?

The deteriorating health of his father Yukio Mori forced him to return to the firm founded by the three Mori brothers in 1948.

Trained as an engineer, Mr. Mori is a passionate entrepreneur. “He thinks strategically, but can explain every detail of his machinery,” said Mr. Zbinden.

Mr. Mori has compared his business approach to the devotion of a Buddhist monk. “A president is like a monk in a temple – for him there is nothing more than serving his firm and employees,” he said.

He admires the obsession with precision of many German and Swiss companies. Last December, his company opened its new European headquarters near Zurich.

Mr. Mori’s talents were not always deployed in his family’s business, which currently has 4,200 employees and sales of €1.3 billion, or $1.48 billion.

Fleeing a strict father, he left home early and, after studies, spent eight years working for Itochu, a trading house. That was when he came up with his life’s motto: “Up till the age of 30, you work with vitality, by 40 you gain identity, by 50 you find originality and over 50, your personality flourishes.”

Just as Mr. Mori and his wife were getting excited about a transfer to Düsseldorf in 1993, his family called upon his sense of duty. The deteriorating health of his father, Yukio Mori, forced him to return to the firm founded by three Mori brothers in 1948.

He took the helm in 1999 at age 37. Mr. Mori, who rows and golfs in his spare time, owns 2.7 percent of the company.

Baader Bank in Frankfurt has criticized the bid as too low.

Mori Seiki and Gildemeister became partners in 2009 after the Japanese firm bought a stake in its German rival.

The deal enabled Gildemeister chairman Rüdiger Kapitza to shed €300 million in debt paying interest of 9.5 percent and gave the Japanese an opportunity to become a global leader.

Making the most of synergies while tapping the global market has helped the firms grow together, sharing resources for sales, marketing and research. Most recently, they developed a common control system for their machinery.

Mr. Kapitza had always talked about a possible “merger of equals” by 2020. But since Gildemeister has much stronger profits and finances, it would have meant a de facto takeover of the Japanese company – which was unacceptable for Mr. Mori.

“So an alternative deal was sought,” said Thomas Rau, an equity analyst for Montega in Hamburg.

But the analyst said he had no explanation for Mr. Kapitza calling Mori Seiki’s offer “a touch too high” and downplaying the business prospects for the Bielefeld-based company, openly contravening the interests of other Gildemeister shareholders.

Baader Bank in Frankfurt has also criticized the bid as too low.

Despite the €1.6-billion offer, the shares of the Tokyo-listed company surged 29 percent in the past two weeks. In Japan, investors are betting on Mr. Mori to prevail.


This article originally appeared in WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: [email protected]