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Lessons from one woman’s ascent to a CEO job in Japan

In the early 1980s when Makiko Ono applied for a job at Suntory, the Japanese drinks group behind Jim Beam and Yamazaki, she was encouraged by the unusual sight at the time of female employees taking charge of the interview process. Her instinct told her that it was a company where women would be able to thrive in their career.

Four decades later, Ono proved herself right when she was tapped as the first female chief executive of Suntory’s listed beverage and food unit last week.

At first glance, the 62-year-old appears to have gone through a career track that seems grimly familiar.

In January of this year, she was appointed the chief sustainability officer of Suntory Holdings, often the most senior position for female employees at Japanese companies — a trend that critics said resulted from a box-ticking exercise to meet diversity demands from asset managers.

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But in fact, Ono, who studied Portuguese in college, became part of Suntory’s mergers and acquisitions team shortly after she joined and became the first female employee to be sent to France in the early 1990s to manage a winery the company had bought. From there, she acquired a broad experience from marketing, human resources to corporate communications before she became head of Orangina, the French soft-drink maker Suntory bought in 2009, during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ono’s advancement to the top position is noteworthy because female chief executives are still a small minority in Japan.

Despite a government-led push for female empowerment under “the womenomics” programme since 2013, only 8.2 per cent of 1.2mn Japanese companies had female presidents, according to a survey by research firm Teikoku Databank. Of those, more than half inherited the top position via a family business.

But more important is how Ono broke the glass ceiling because that has lessons for other Japanese companies struggling to nurture the pool of female talent for senior management positions.

Kei Okamura, a Tokyo-based portfolio manager at US asset manager Neuberger Berman, said companies in Japan are still focused on providing support for women such as generous maternity leave, but lack the mentoring programme to develop their skills after they return to work.

There is still a cultural tendency to evaluate employees based on the number of hours they work instead of their actual output. That means women in effect get demoted at some companies when they return from maternity leave. While the government has encouraged a shift towards a merit-based system, the focus on working hours continues to be strong, particularly for small and medium-sized companies.

“Once women come back to the office, they need to have role models that they look up to so that they feel they have a fair shot at becoming senior management,” said Okamura, who recently co-wrote an open letter with the Asian Corporate Governance Association containing proposals to seek more gender diversity on the boards of listed Japanese companies.

Ono, who is single, said she benefited from an environment and mindset of Suntory’s top management that allowed her independently to think through and open up her career, a path that she claims is available not only for female employees with children but others of various backgrounds.

“Since I joined Suntory, I was given opportunities to expand my career by trying out a variety of roles,” Ono said in an interview. “I hope my appointment will send the message that everyone has a chance to become the CEO or a senior manager.” 

When Ono takes over as chief executive pending shareholder approval in March, three of Suntory Beverage’s nine board directors will be female and two non-Japanese. Such a diverse board is still rare in Japan, but a growing number of asset managers including Neuberger Berman and proxy advisers ISS and Glass Lewis have put pressure in recent years for companies to ditch all-men Japanese boards.

While lower key than the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s womenomics programme, current prime minister Fumio Kishida has also called for women’s economic independence as a pillar of his economic programme.

It is easy for Japanese businesses to tick the right box by bringing a female non-executive director on to the board. But if they are serious about fixing their thin pipeline of female senior executives, managements should not simply be satisfied with offering an extended maternity leave that at times can hinder career advancement. A return to work is not enough; employees, both men and women, need to be given fair opportunities to expand their skills.

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