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November 23, 2000 CEO wins loyalty with free soap



“Dirty hands” is a political science term that refers to corruption, but Terri Lituchy gave it a literal application when she interviewed a Japanese woman about her little factory in rural China.

Lituchy is a young management professor in Concordia’s John Molson School of Business. She’s been on leave for the past year, officially at the California Polytechnical University, but in fact, doing research on business sites in Japan, China and Mexico. She has been looking at a range of Japanese firms, from the multinational Toyota down to a small textile operation, Neue Associates, run by Mrs. Yoko Fujita.

Mrs. Fujita found that the samples of toys and clothing made in her rural Chinese factory were filthy, and on her next visit, she asked why. She was told that the workers had no soap in their washroom, or even in their homes, and hadn’t been told to start work with clean hands.

She had a truckload of soap delivered to the factory, and the workers were thrilled. Now, on her twice-monthly visits from Tokyo, she brings medicine, fruit and vegetables to give to the workers.

Mrs. Fujita was obviously a favourite interview, but when Lituchy finished her presentation, one of her fellow researchers remarked tartly that “this woman sounds more like an NGO than a CEO.” Why hadn’t she written a clean-hands clause into her contract with the workers?

Lituchy, who knows how deprived Chinese workers can be, simply said that the owner had done what she had to do to keep her factory viable, and she won her workers’ loyalty into the bargain.

At the other end of the spectrum, Lituchy found that Toyota, the international auto manufacturer, views itself as a good corporate citizen, but in practice, this extends only to donating to annual local festivals in Japan.

When she asked about their corporate giving in other countries, Toyota executives could only name two well-established cultural concerns, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a British museum. As for cultural sensitivity, relations between Japanese executives and workers in the car giant’s Mexican plant are described as poor.

In general, however, Lituchy has found that high-tech businesses in developing regions tend to be cleaner, safer and treat their employees in a more enlightened way. Low-tech factories that process textiles and easy-to-assemble components are the ones that bear close watching, including some Lituchy knows of where the doors are locked to keep stragglers out — and workers in.

— Barbara Black