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TMW: The go-to manufacturer of injection molds for automobile parts

Interview - March 12, 2023

TMW is a specialist producer of plastic-injection molds for automobile parts such as instrument panels and bumpers. Founded in 1949, the Japanese company supplies a host of major vehicle manufacturers both at home and abroad.


What is your manufacturing philosophy or take on monozukuri? In your opinion, what sets your company and Japan apart from its regional manufacturing competitors?   

Most of Japan’s economy is held by monozukuri- something built. Whether small or large and global or domestic, everything starts from manufacturing and goes into the service. We understand that we have competitors in China or Korea in our tooling business. I think each company’s philosophy depends on whether they consider them competitors or partners. For our part, we think of them as our partners, and we utilize and leverage their capacity.
Many in our industry would always try to compete with China and Korea or ASEAN like Vietnam, Indonesia or Thailand. On the contrary, TMW looks at them as partners in order to stay in global business.

Can you elaborate on your relationship with your overseas partners? What do they gain from you, and what do you gain from them?

Although it is a supply chain in which there is a business between us, we call them partners, never suppliers. We make tools every day, used for applications such as instrument panels and bumpers. Considering the capacity of our headquarters plant in Inazawa, we cannot make 20 big tools in this facility each month. We are limited to seven or eight tools a month.

We need the capacity of our subsidiaries in China and Korea as well as our many partners outside in order to keep our business like Yokozuna (sumo champion). There are only a few firms left that are considered Yokozuna tooling companies, which means being independent.

For us, continuing as Yokozuna means we have to consolidate a big number of tools with the projects they are giving to toolmakers. Our capacity cannot be calculated by just our facility. We have to share our engineering method, know-how, timekeeping, and even our software with our supply chain partners for them to be able to build our tools to our standards. Keeping that supply chain is very difficult especially during years when business is slow. We tried to stay a Yokozuna by gathering a lot of business at our facility here to supply to our partners. The benefit for us is being able to stay a Yokozuna, and for them, they get more business.

In 2018, we changed our name from Tatematsu Mold Works to TMW. Tatematsu Mold Works was one of the biggest brands in the tooling business in Japan, especially in automotive. Everybody knows us, but we do not know everybody. Thanks to the valuable efforts of my grandfather - the former president and the company's former employees, we were considered one of the top and largest tool-making companies in Japan. We have that background that allows us to go anywhere in the world and be viewed as a good company to collaborate with in Japan, especially being a chushokigyo (SME). Partnerships are maybe the most important value and the core of our business.

The Coronavirus pandemic has been incredibly disruptive, especially in terms of supply chain management and supply chain partnerships for your builders and supporters. How did you react to those disruptions?

In the last few years, we had a difficult time, just like everybody else globally. We most likely open our demands to our customers so that they could support us. At the end of the day, we are always supporting customers however they need us. We tell our customers exactly what is going on, even about the transfer of tools or parts. We try to be honest, and we are only trying to profit from what we make. That philosophy, which stays in our partnerships, counts in order to gain their trust.

I do not send Christmas cards, but I call to say, "We apologize that we have not had a business deal in a year. This is how Japan's economy is now." We let them know, and they usually understand. They understand the good and bad times.

Companies that have been able to succeed and have that kind of status for so long have accumulated expertise passed down to the next generations. However, the transfer of that technical expertise to the younger generation has become an growing problem, especially for chushokigyos. What has your experience been in that respect? What has been the main challenge of Japan’s demographic decline for your company?

We do have that problem, but what helps us is our style of being an cool tool maker, which we want to be our core style. We tried to commercialize and showcase that to make our employees feel that we are doing something cool. The TMW red logo that we have been using for over 65 years was designed by my grandfather. In 2018, I designed the black logo to separate our tooling business from our venture or start-up businesses. We also pursue start-up businesses internally by taking ideas from our employees. On every occasion, I am upfront in providing any support toward that endeavor, like considering agreements. Ideally, though, we try to make our business target and end up in the tooling business. All our departments are structured to connect back to our tooling business. Our core business is the mold tooling business, which we are good at and famous for because we have been doing that for more than 60 years.

No other toolmakers do some of the things we do because of our history. The only thing I ask those who want to join our company is whether they have the passion to work with us or not. Of course, they say they do on the interview. I never say, "I am going to make you into this kind of person, or I am going to groom you into being this person in our company." I always encourage them to try it. If you do not work out, then you walk out. I try to be honest with them.

When I was in junior high, I moved to the US, and I did not speak a single word of English. I started from scratch. Although I was like a baby learning English, I managed to be able to speak in English. Though I am not perfect, I successfully attended school, made a lot of friends, worked and enjoyed my stay in the US. When my family decided for me to join a company in the US and not come back to Japan, I started my career there. Back then, we only had around 20 people working in the mold division of our company in the US. As I walked into the shop, I had to do literally everything, even cleaning. Nevertheless, that was a great experience for me because, in a short period, everyone was quickly teaching me everything. I was able to give support to our company's tool shop, and I was able to run machines and make data on my own as it had a smaller capacity. The younger people who come into our company here in Japan are usually assigned to a specific area and gain expertise in machining, finishing or designing. They will not get generalized training, which we consider a big problem. Given how I grew up and my experience, I know the shop, what the tools are and what the future is supposed to be. I strive to share that with our people all the time.

After working for about five years in America, I came to Japan. My uncle, the former president of the company, asked me where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I told him that I wanted to work in the shop. I did not care, even if that meant a two to five year commitment. Most employees who are working, managing and serving as officers in the company (shop) now are those I worked with in the shop twenty years ago. They know who I am in and out, what I do and what I expect. I do not want to be Tatematsu. Here at our company, there are six Tatematsu-san (sons) working, including my father. I am the head of this company, but we have a holding company. My father has two brothers, and each of them has a son. One of my cousins just went back to the US. He is going to be 40 next year, so he is very young to be taking over the entire US operation. Despite that, I want him to take on that challenge. I also took over this company at 40. Before, you would have to be 50 or 55, maybe even close to 60, to become the president of the company. That happens in chushokigyos all the time, as there is always the difficulty of passing things down. At our company, we are trying to lower that age required to become an officer, so we now have several younger leaders and managers. Our officers are in their mid-30s to 70s, and we consider them experienced. Still, we welcome inexperienced employees who display an understanding of who we are, what we do and what our company is expecting. If they have the capability and willingness to put their time into our business, I am also willing to put them up with our upper management. A bad thing about Japanese culture is that once you go up to higher management, you never go down. That is where you get stuck. At the same time, many younger people cannot go up. Therefore, we ask them to step down, which is a mindset that I have set up in our company 10 years ago before I became president.

What has been the older generation’s reaction to these changes? For example, from your father and uncles?

Right after the Lehman shock, the economy struggled, and our industry crashed pretty badly. I am proud to say that while we were very negative for a long time, but we were able to manage and keep going. We tried to keep the cash flowing. Despite being negative, we were able to keep our business and our promise to our grandfather. He always says that all our employees are our family. Our company's philosophy states that everybody eats the same meal, and we eat the same rice from the same rice cooker. We want to keep that philosophy as our tradition. In fact, we have employed people who cook for all of us in our cafeteria every day, and we used to serve dinner too. Back when my grandfather started the business, he asked my grandmother to cook daily for everybody. She was actually running the lathe too. She had my father on her back while working, running the lathe and working in the kitchen. That was how our family started our business 74 (forty) years ago.

A bad thing about chushokigyos is that we sometimes time to preserve that legend too much. In other words, Japanese people cannot be too dry. In the business field, that is referred to as ninjo, a human connection deep within one’s heart. The upper management will try to save even the worst employee. They never fire someone, and that happens in our company. My grandfather hated to lay off employees. Throughout our 75 years of history, we have not done any layoffs in TMW, even though our business was doing badly after Lehman or 10 years before that. However, we did it in the subsidiary I managed in Malaysia. The first thing I had to do was to lay off around 20 members, which was a very tough decision for me, but it was an important learning experience. My mindset changed when I came back. Today, I am asking all my employees to input whatever they can to be in this company; otherwise, I will have to make that difficult decision. Everybody, including the banks and consultants, tells me to downsize the company due to high wage costs. However, I respond, “So what? That only means we have to make more.”  Keeping our employees means allowing them to continue making a living. Whenever we are in a bad situation, I go up in front of everybody and say, “Hey, I need to cut your wage down. Help me for a year or six months.” They always agree each time I do that because they know that the company has their interests at heart. 

In view of the tooling business being a complicated and old-type style business that keeps lots of traditions and standards, we want to be more easygoing, fashionable and creative.. That is why having younger people in management is advantageous because they have more ideas. The older ones usually keep things ordinary, fixed and old school. I asked all the former management people to step down. To do that, I needed a trigger. I do not think some of the old-school things have changed, but we have project management, which is unusual for tooling companies in Japan. Project management is common in the US and Europe. On the contrary, it is more army-style in Japan.

In order to change that, we have to physically change the way we run the tooling and processes. It took me about a year to continually discuss with the management how we can transform our styles and daily processes at our workplace. A year ago, we came up with new project management, and we also brought in a new management that runs daily. The older management keeps watch over the new management, but they are usually under it, as they are ordered to work and do whatever they need to do to provide support. We did that for a year and a half before totally switching over. Meanwhile, the wages remained the same.                    

In the history of your company, perhaps the biggest transformation in the automotive industry is the switch to EV and FCV. What has the impact been for you? How are you adapting to the external changes in the automotive sector?                            

Our core business will not change so much. Whether it is EV, FCV or gasoline engines, there is always interior and exterior. It is not a motorcycle, so it needs a body. Also, it does not really matter if it is simplified or electrical. Except, the design of the many things we build here will have to change because buttons will be changed to touch panels. The air conditioning, radio or other components do not have to be separated, which makes things simpler. However, the design and shape are going to be more complicated than they used to be.                       

We have numerous internal mechanisms to make that possible. Likewise, we have the know-how as we have already experienced building big tools that have a lot of space. We know that we have many ways to make different shapes inside the tool. Small tools that require small injection machines have very limited space, and we cannot really do so much. The durability of big-sized tools is very hard, so we have many things that we can do inside. The airbag tear cut was one of the ideas that came from that.

Do you see this change in the anatomy of the car as more of an opportunity or a threat?

Everybody says that it is a threat, and that is true for someone in our shoes. Plastic injection tooling businesses significantly deal with automotive, but we also do other things. We feel that the automotive side of the market is an opportunity because we can try more different ways of approaching injection tooling. That is why I have a hot runner system business. I have key factor components that need to be in the tooling. We try to work on injection businesses at the same time so that we can gather more information and collaborate back into tooling.

How do you envision your international development, and what kind of tools or partnerships are you looking to create to become globalized?

We have to keep our core business going. We always have a QCD problem or cost issues globally. However, my philosophy is that business will come as long as we keep our healthy relationships with our customers harmonious, and not be too selfish. I might be too Japanese in saying that. We have bad and good times, as well as times with busy and less workload.

We are always moving, but not just because there is a business there. Besides looking at new tools, one of our targets is also to put forth an effort in following up on all the tools that we have sent in the last 20 years. Tools have a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, so we do everything we can to be responsible, and we get paid for that. There is a time limit for our voluntary services, then we move on. We do what we need to do to keep our name and remain where we are.

Imagine we come back in two years for your 75th anniversary and have this interview all over again. What would you like to tell us? What are your dreams for this company, and what goals would you like to have accomplished by then?

We do everything we can to maximize our capacity. In that situation, the business forecast in Japan does not look very good. Even though I talk about good things and our history, no one knows what is going to happen next year. It is possible for us to go down. To prevent that, we need to keep growing. Having said that, I am not trying to grow our business. Rather, I am trying to stay in business. My idea is to keep this legendary company from my grandfather, who started it. I changed the name of the company in 2018 because I wanted to take Tatematsu out of the company's name. Tatematsu Mold Works not only has over 65 years of experience but is also trusted by our customers, and everyone knows us. It was on our 60th anniversary when I changed the name. I asked my employees, "How long is it going to take us to go over that 60 years with a new plan, a new logo and a new name?". I would like my CEOs and officers to be able to go up to be in management, and to eventually take over my position. I made the decision to have others step down. Now, they can make the decision of making me step down.