‘The 20th Century’s most remarkable entrepreneur’ – II : Lessons for today

by rohit on March 15, 2010


The previous post described how Konsuke Matsushita (KM), the founder of the company with brands like National and Panasonic, achieved stupendous success – in business and in other fields – over a seven decade career. A success earned in the face of formidable odds. This earned him the title ‘20th century’s most remarkable entrepreneur’, in a book Harvard prof. John Kotter wrote in 1997. Kotter says Matsushita’s achievements rank ahead of other entrepreneurs – Honda, Sam Walton and Henry Ford.

Kotter's 1997 bestseller

Kotter's 1997 bestseller

While extremely hardworking, Konsuke Matsushita was not particularly talented. Nor did he have connections, formal education (he studied only till the 4th grade) or a striking personality. He never grew taller than five feet five inches nor weighed more than 135 pounds. He didn’t excel at public speaking, and in later years his voice grew increasingly frail. He rarely displayed speed-of-light intellectual skills or warmed an audience with hilarious anecdotes. He suffered ill-health for the greater part of his working life. He was prone to flashes of anger.

This post (Part II) is about :

What really made him succeed ? What lessons can each of us – as individuals – take away from his success story?

What lessons does his life offer for today’s companies and executives ?


Keep growing as a person : Lifelong learning is it

The biggest theme that runs throughout his life is that of growth, as a person, as a business person and as a leader. He never stopped learning or reinventing himself. Plunging into poverty at age four, starting work at nine, losing his entire family before he was thirty, the death of his son, the Great Depression, and World War II cumulatively had a great impact on him. Hardships encouraged him to re-evaluate things and learn.

He himself would have liked to say: don’t assume that we cannot continue to develop, and develop greatly, as we age. In a changing environment, lifelong learning is what matters, not IQ, family background / status, charisma or formal education.

What enables lifelong learning :  I – Big, humanistic goals

Success often causes arrogance and complacency. Failure often undermines one’s risk-taking capability. But we have to rise above both.

With ideals that are big and humanistic, we can be inspired to achieve and rise above our failures. Big and idealistic goals also help us stay grounded even if we achieve great success – since the biggest goals  are yet to be achieved.

Big and idealistic goals were first formulated for Matsushita Corporation in the 1930s, when KM said the company’s would make products that were ‘as plentiful and cheap as water, no matter how long it may take’.

Hardships are also great learning opportunities. They can spawn these big idealistic goals, as well as continuous growth and great accomplishments.

What enables lifelong learning : II – Humility

Lifelong learning i.e. learning at any age is possible if one is humble, open- minded, willing to take risks and to honestly self-reflect.

KM was known to be exceedingly humble and invariably courteous, irrespective of the other person’s rank.

Konsuke Matsushita

Konsuke Matsushita

The story goes that once he couldn’t finish a meal at a restaurant. He asked the restaurant owner to call the cook. The cook came, afraid that his cooking had not been found satisfactory by such a distinguished guest. However, KM said to him :

“Your cooking is good. But you know, I am an old man, so I could not eat very much. And I don’t want you to think that I didn’t like your meal. Please accept my apologies if this will upset you…”

I am reminded of the story told of Henry Ford. While early on in his career Ford was grounded and could create the very successful Model T, this very fame and attention later caused him to lose his sense of bearing. This pride eventually played a role in the Ford Motor Company getting eclipsed by GM and other companies.

Having faith in people is important too

He believed in people. What would later be called the Theory X of Management. Right from the early days, employees of Matsushita Electric Industries (MEI) were consulted and involved in decision-making.

One should have a positive view of human nature, not a cynical one, if one wants to progress.


Lessons for today’s companies

Matsushita Electric Industries (MEI) as a company was ahead of it’s time. It pioneered several management practices, as detailed in Part I of this post. It was a company that would have done well in today’s age.

KM’s life seems to say: forget about the typical mid-20th century corporation with it’s centralized structure, many levels, bureaucratic approach, internal focus, slow response time, etc. In the competitive world of today, winning companies will look increasingly like MEI was from the 1920s to 1960s, with the customer as king, productivity constantly improving, empowered employees, speed of execution and high performance standards.

Lessons for today’s executives

Forget also about the typical mid- 20th century executive. He was a cautious manager who often had little impact and who sometimes excelled only at pleasing his boss. In a competitive, fast-changing environment such as today’s, the successful executive will have to be more entrepreneurial, more of a leader, and more of an institution builder. Like KM, he will need to become customer and cost focused, embrace optimistic and ethical goals, communicate his vision widely and help others perform to highest standards.
Forget also about progress being linear, since the 21st century environment will be volatile.
Most of all, forget the mid-20th century paradigms of learning, careers and growth. Success stories will now not be about people who complete an education by 25 and who then apply that schooling till they retire 40 years later. Winners will be those who are both willing and able to grow throughout their lifetimes.


Meanwhile..fast forward to another time.

Matsushita is today.. Panasonic Corporation

In Oct 2008, the company’ name was changed from Matsushita Electrical Industries to Panasonic Corporation.  The brand names National and Technic have been phased out too. All growth will be around the Panasonic and Sanyo brands.

The company had 292,000 employees and a turnover of 7765 billion yen (approx. $80 billion) in 2009.

The company has not stopped dreaming big. Here’s their vision for the 100 th year of their founding viz. for 1918 : To be the No. 1 Green Innovation company in the electronics industry.

A whole series of eco-friendly and energy-efficient products are being contemplated. Here’s a presentation that details their new strategy.

Panasonic India

Panasonic India is now a sponsor of IPL's Delhi Daredevils

Panasonic India is now a sponsor of IPL's Delhi Daredevils

Here in India, Panasonic India has decided to adopt Bollywood and cricket; it has roped in Katrina Kaif as brand ambassador for it’s ‘Ideas for Lifecampaign. It is also the sponsor of IPL cricket team Delhi Daredevils. Delhi Daredevils in case you didn’t know is the bookies favourite to win IPL 3.

Katrina's Panasonic India's brand ambassador

And Katrina Kaif has been appointed Panasonic India's brand ambassador

Ah, you knew that I was always going to give you a fairy tale ending to this long, two part post. Thanks for reading Marketer’s Kaleidoscope !


It was Kotter’s book which in ’97 first brought Konsuke Matsushita, by then dead and gone, to the close attention of management pundits. The ensuing publicity led to KM getting recognized as a great global leader.

Here is what Kotter has to say today :

“Konosuke Matsushita was an uncommon leader in a time of great change in Japan.  His innovative management and marketing practices were key to the post-WWII economic miracle in Japan.  He rose from abject poverty to great riches, but that is only one element of this great man’s story.  His was a shining example of the truly adaptive leader.  He was constantly growing and learning from his experiences to create a better future for the organizations he led.  He truly lived the motto that, “the more things change, the more we need to grow.”

He made billions of dollars in his lifetime.  He poured much of it back into the country that he love in an effort to transform the nation and its leaders. As an inspirational leader in the world, he is truly peerless.”.

On a personal note

This book / Konsuke Matsushita’s story has influenced me in the following manner.

When I now recruit people, I look for learnability as the major ingredient. It doesn’t matter whether the person has a degree from an IIT, an IIM or any other brand name institute.

What matters is how far he/she has traveled in his/her career/life down the path of learning. That is, how varied and rich has the candidate’s learning been for each year he / she has been out of college. And under what personal circumstances has this learning been – favourable or unfavourable ?

Hope this two part post has helped you too, dear reader, to find something of value.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jitendra Agrawal February 16, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Dear Rohit,
Thanks for the great post about the KM & his book. Personally I could relate to you & this unique trait of ‘learnability’ in you seen during my worklife experience with you. You still continue to read & learn…! I wish you all the best & please keep blogging such posts where readers like me can learn from.



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