Phil Murphy, UK general manager at Kyocera, has just met our photographer, who proceeds to tell him he looks like the Reverend Ian Paisley. With an Irish passport in his pocket, he smiles at the irony. When the photographer asks him to stand against an orange background for the photo session, Murphy can't help but laugh out loud, trying to explain why this might not be the best scenario to be pictured in.
Murphy has a good sense of humour, something he proves on a regular basis when he meets the press informally. After some people have succumbed to massive alcoholic battering, Murphy's entering his sixth hour of joke telling and there's no end in sight.
It's quite refreshing to find that kind of light-heartedness in a managing director, especially one that works for a conservative Japanese parent.
It's unlikely they've heard his full repertoire, since Murphy is now in his eighth year at the UK helm of the Japanese giant, which produces everything from printers and ceramic IT and stationery products, to solar-power panels for houses and commercial properties.
But in the UK, Kyocera is all about printers. Right now the vendor is doing very well, and Murphy appears invigorated to be leading the charge.
Dataquest research places Kyocera in the number two spot in the UK, behind dominant Hewlett-Packard.
It's hard to see Murphy fitting in comfortably with a staid Japanese company - he's opinionated, headstrong, and has been known to flout more than one corporate edict in the interests of trying to resurrect the fortunes of a printer manufacturer that lost its way almost to the point of extinction in the early 90s.
But it has been this rebellious nature that helped kick-start the solid turnaround for Kyocera in the UK. Murphy is the first to admit that not all of the risks taken in his career have paid off, and he has made his fair share of apologies to the Japanese top brass. That said, some of those U-turn decisions have built the foundation for Kyocera's run of fortune, not least of which has been the cultivating of a strong relationship with the channel.
In the early days, IT was not where Murphy's heart or energies were destined to lie. In fact, he'd probably prefer to be flogging booze, and if his Japanese bosses ever hear some of the jokes that fly from his mouth like a machine gun, he may just get his wish.
Born in Hillingdon, London, his parents were schoolteachers but Murphy claims that not only did he not have any desire to teach, he didn't have the capacity either: "I'm so impatient it's unbelievable.
"I went to the London School of Economics (LSE) in the days when it was probably still fun to go there. I suspect they're all a little bit more po-faced now. We used to dress outrageously - I used to wear bright yellow pants, army fatigues and bad shirts. As for hair, mine was like Noddy Holder's. I wasn't intentionally modelling myself on him, but the photographs tell another story. In addition to the clothes, we had regular trouble with the police and we even made the front page of the Daily Express with the headline: 'LSE students riot again'.
"We had a serious political point," he is quick to stress. "We didn't want taxis to come down Houghton Street, which was part of our campus - it's all blocked off now. We built barricades across the road. At the time, the LSE had a big law faculty so as the police were arresting students and taking them off to Bow Street police station, the LSE had lecturers and barristers bailing them out."
Far from entering into world business to make use of his economics diploma, Murphy joined the drinks trade. "I sold lemonade. The people at Corona were good enough to let me drive one of their trucks. It was big, yellow and had a huge fin on the back. I used to deliver lemonade to the people of Harlesden. I was with the company for six months, in which time I saved up and bought a ticket to Australia.
"By this time I had matured considerably and the yellow pants and Noddy Holder hair had gone - I had virtually no hair at all then. I arrived on Saturday and had a job by the Monday - it'll be no surprise to learn that it was delivering lemonade again. I was, to all intents and purposes, a lemonade salesman, hot property in the world of lemonade, and now I was selling it door-to-door. Except in Australia, the lemonade used to explode - I never had this in Harlesden. The sun used to heat up the soda so I'd be driving along with bottles exploding behind me."
With such a fine pedigree in the pop world, it's wasn't long before dabbling with lighter beverages led Murphy to experiment with harder stuff. "After a couple of months I graduated to selling booze for Penfolds, one of the big Australian vineyards," he recalls. "My route was selling to Sydney's restaurants. The way I made a successful living was to give my home telephone number to all of the wine waiters in Sydney and they would ring at night and leave their orders on the answerphone. I'd make out a hardcopy of the orders in the morning and my day's work was over."
Afraid of becoming too settled in Australia, Murphy came home after two-and-a-half years. "I was homesick. It was 1975 and it took ages to get a job. I tried to get back into the wine industry but since it was all about contacts, and mine were in Australia, I failed.
"IT was kicking off at the time, so I joined Olivetti. It gave me five months' training before I was let loose on the public. It taught me the basics of selling and all about IT. As part of the training course, the company would take you down to an industrial estate and just drop you off. No one does training like that any more. There was no IT infrastructure to poach from, so back then you had to take raw material and train it up."
Visible record computers are not remembered by too many these days, but these accountancy tools were heavy, had 256Kb of memory, and read and stored information on large, magnetic striped cards. This was cutting-edge stuff in 1976 and people were paying up to £6,000 for them.
"We used to have to walk around the streets with these heavy things under our arms - they were the size of big, electric typewriters," Murphy says.
"I remember going into one of the rag trade shops on Great Portland Street and doing a demonstration for this Welsh woman. I was new to the game but I did a fantastic copybook demonstration that took about half an hour. When I was done, she said: 'Oh, electric, is it?'"
After four years of carrying the very expensive typewriters through his patch - Oxford Circus to Tottenham Court Road - Murphy moved to ICL in the early days of the minicomputer. "ICL was really famous then, but I didn't know when I took the job that it was nearly bankrupt. I think that it was actually technically insolvent but the government stepped in and bailed it out.
"I was the latest business salesman at ICL. At the time, it was very much like the civil service and would only gently turn its existing customers.
"You'd get someone at Birmingham City Council call up and say it had an extra £250,000 in the budget, and ask what it could get for that. In those days, 8Mb was the standard disk size: if you had a 1Gb drive, you put it in a fully air-conditioned room with false floors and ceiling, wrapped it tightly in cotton wool and treated it very gently indeed. Now I'm selling printers that have at least 2Gb hard-disk drives."
But boredom kicked in after three years and Murphy made one of those characteristic, spur-of-the-moment decisions, only to regret it every day afterwards. "I went to McDonnell Douglas and that was a mistake," he admits. "Everybody's entitled to at least one. The company was horrible to work for. It was a command and control style of organisation. The managing director's interest at the time was how polished your shoes were. I lasted 18 months."
Murphy's ambition was to stay with computers and become an account director for one of the big players. Failing an IBM job put paid to that idea, and he sees it as fate getting the job at Epson, not in sales, but marketing.
For Murphy, it was a breath of fresh air.
Marketing was much more cerebral work, much like his role today, he claims.
"I think it's a waste of time to get involved in long-term strategic planning.The printer market is not that difficult. It's well defined, and the long-term strategy is the property of the Japanese. It's my job to create a company that does things right so that when products arrive, I ensure they are launched properly. To ensure all this happens, I have to employ the right people or develop them. I have quite a heavy teaching role on the development side - I run a lot of courses internally."
Murphy spent more than six years at Epson before he was made redundant when the division he worked in shut down. However, at the same time, Kyocera was holding interviews for a general manager and a divisional manager of the printer business. Murphy went for the printer job.
"The first interview was with a Japanese manager. It lasted for five hours and he told me over lunch: 'Look, I don't think I can hire you - you're not serious enough.' In the end, I joined as divisional manager of printers. I got a call - very un-Japanese-like - from the same manager asking me if I had a job yet, 'No,' I replied. 'Well, you've got one now,' he said.
"It was the strangest thing walking in the first day being the most senior person in the company with no boss to meet me and show me the ropes," Murphy says. "So I spent the first two weeks having lots of brilliant ideas, except they were all crap, but no-one told me because I was the boss.
"After two weeks, a perplexed Mr Honda showed up asking me to be general manager. I accepted. This was in January 1991 and he said I'd be appointed general manger from 1 April, but that I couldn't tell anyone. Could you imagine? This was 1991 and not only was I the most senior guy in the place, but the other divisional managers of hard disk and PC units weren't to know. This time I stopped with the ideas and sat back and listened for a while."
The problems were many, he recalls. "Salesmen didn't notice when the last day of the month came, the products were old fashioned, the company was nearly going out of business and the channel was frightened of us.
The channel problem was that the previous management kept changing its mind about what it wanted to do. I saw distribution as the key to turning things around, so I began talking to distributors in a way that they wanted to be talked to.
"We understood their priorities, but it meant they needed our policies to be consistent with what they were trying to achieve," Murphy explains.
"We needed a measure of consistency, something we had never had. For example, at that time, we had no stock protection. If you bought stock and it was wrong, anyone else would let you send it back, but not Kyocera. Kyocera would say 'sorry, you're stuck with it'. We were also cash with order only. In other words, if you wanted to buy our printers, you gave us the cash before we shipped them out."
The first thing Murphy did was to introduce credit cards. The second thing was to bring in stock protection - all of this was flying in the face of Japanese opposition, but as Murphy says: "They were saying 'we quite like cash and we quite like not having to take products back' - so I listened and then went ahead and did it anyway.
Of the five distributors we appointed at the time, four of them are still around, and the other one went out of business. Those four originals are Ingram Micro, Computer 2000, ISI, and Northamber. Kyocera's latest addition is XMA Peripherals."
Within Kyocera, there were more fundamental problems during the early days, not least of which was staffing. "When I came in, I didn't realise what a mess Kyocera was in - we had 42 employees and we were nowhere in the market," Murphy says. "When it came to staff changes, I didn't do it quickly enough. I arrived from Epson expecting to see a similar operation with successful sales staff, but what I found was a company in eighth position with salesmen standing around with their brains out of gear on the last day of the month. I tried to do the right thing and train some of them out of these bad habits, but eventually they all went."
So now things are going well, how has Murphy settled in with the Japanese way? "You have to understand that Japanese companies are different from each other. Firstly, there are no Japanese managers in my organisation - my nearest manager is actually in Japan. When I was at Epson, there were at least 15 Japanese managers in the building. There they would speak Japanese in mixed-race meetings - they have never done that at Kyocera.
"There is one thing I really like about working for a Japanese company, and this is true of Epson also. There is always room for an apology. Mistakes that would be terminal in a US or even a UK company can sometimes be apologised for. Twice a year, the managers gather in Japan to read out their financial results and about three apologies each is par for the course."
But the differences are not just confined to the boardroom. "I find it difficult to sit on the floor to eat raw fish, mainly because I don't like raw fish and also because the floor is getting further away each year. I don't fold up real well," Murphy admits. "When I get down there, the joints that should click together, I have to hold together, which leaves me no spare hands to eat the raw fish with."
He thinks he has the Japanese social graces down pat now, but it was not always that way. "I did once refer to myself as Murphy San in a meeting, and this is just not allowed. San, when someone addresses you with it, contains all the good things that that person is saying about you, such as how honourable you are and how respectful they are being to you. To refer to yourself using San is absolutely ridiculous. They all fell about laughing, slapping their thighs and howling. I knew as soon as I said it that it was a total gaffe, but I hadn't expected that response."
It would be unfair to touch on his Japanese parentage without having at least one karaoke story, but it seems Kyocera has raised the practice from drunken warbling to a key strategic driver for success.
"Karaoke is one of the ways Japanese bosses motivate you. Kyocera has this notion of Compa, which is uses as a motivational tool. You may end up having three Compa in an evening - the first one being a formal karaoke with bosses and speeches, then another for the divisional group with your bosses, beer and no speeches, and then karaoke for those people they wish to motivate. But, as you're falling into bed, all tired out after your three Compas, they're doing a fourth for the Japanese workers."
When it comes to looking ahead, Murphy does not see Kyocera changing anything about how it does business. He believes the channel is working hard for him, so why change? As for selling over the internet, Murphy is looking at it but remains proud that Kyocera is a direct virgin.
Right now he is speaking about one of the better aspects of his job: "There's a lot of travelling, which I like. It's nice to turn right out of my drive for Heathrow instead of left to Reading for work. Reading doesn't have a lot going for it. On my way to Reading last week, there was a giant tube sticking out of the middle of the road. Do you know what it was? It was God giving the world an enema."
DROP THE DEAD DONKEY - Phil Murphy
UK general manager, Kyocera
Date of birth: 29 May 1951, Hillingdon
Marital status: Married with four kids
First job: Sainsbury's - I used to wear those high pinafores cutting cheeses behind the counter
Best job: Penfolds Wines in Australia
Worst job: McDonnell Douglas. The people I was working with weren't particularly nice
First crush: Diana Ross
Best characteristic: Kindness
Worst characteristic: Excessively in touch with the 15-year-old child inside me
Favourite holiday spot: Key West, Florida
Most embarrassing moment: I once told a true story about a donkey urinating on an electric fence, too loudly in a very posh restaurant. When I had finished, I looked around and the entire place was looking at me. One person even slow-clapped to make matters worse still.
Favourite Japanese colleague at Kyocera: Yasushi Ono - he's an anglophile and I love having a beer with him.
Favourite musical artist: Bruce Springsteen
And least favourite: T-Rex
Do you like the Spice Girls? No, they irritate me to death.
Favourite football team: Manchester United
Who do you most admire? Tony O'Reilly. He's the chief executive of Heinz, an ex-Irish rugby player, married with kids. He seems to have life all sorted out. I guess it's hero worship from afar.
What will you be doing in five years? I don't know, but I'd like to be the father of seven children.
Tell us a joke: The phone rings at school and the teacher picks it up.
A voice at the other end of the line says, "Johnny Smith won't be coming in today, he's sick." Teacher asks, "OK, but who's speaking?" The voice says, "My dad."
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