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The Unguarded Moment

Published May 11, 2011

I slept with Yoshi Shimano.  Airline computers, those prankster accomplices of fate, had assigned us adjoining seats in the sold-out business class of an Alitalia red-eye going from L.A. to Milan. It was more togetherness than either one of us would have preferred, but we made the best of it.

“Well, this is an unexpected pleasure,” Yoshi said, as I settled in next to him.  Having a big, nervous bald guy fill up the seat he’d been hoping would remain vacant must have been anything but a pleasure,  but Yoshi Shimano always had the class and dignity of a diplomat. “Uh, yeah, me too,” I replied awkwardly. His tightening smile hinted at his discomfort.

Alitalia had a perfect record on their exclusive  L.A. to Milan flight...it always  took off exactly two hours late. The food, wine and flight attendants, were so good, however, that you didn’t care. My plan for the flight was to have a beautiful Italian woman serve me a multi-course meal accompanied by a comprehensive sampling of exquisite red wines, after which I’d fall into a stuporous sleep and wake up in an exotic new place.  Actually, that was my plan for every night of the trip, but it seldom worked out that way.

In the hierarchy of the international bicycle industry, Yoshi Shimano was at the pinnacle.  As a show promoter,  I was rooting around for scraps somewhere below base camp.  A quiet word from Yoshi Shimano, it seemed, could affect bicycle production all over the globe. Yoshi’s two brothers, Keizo and Shozo shared in responsibility for running the company in Japan. I don’t remember their official titles at the time, but I thought of Keizo as the product guy and Shozo, as the corporate guy, the gray eminence.

On a visit to Shimano years before, I’d met Keizo on the factory floor, wearing a casual windbreaker and work attire like any other manager. He didn’t speak a lot of English and he didn’t need to. His welcoming smile and the perpetual twinkle in his eye were universally understood. An enthusiastic cyclist, Keizo was a mechanical engineer and inventor, with numerous patents to his credit. Legend has it that he gave up a promising baseball career to go to work in the family business.  It was a good decision. In the early eighties, Keizo provided the impetus and design initiative for Shimano’s groundbreaking, mountain bike-specific Deore group.  Shozo, the soul of dignity, seemed remote by comparison, as befits the eldest.

Yoshi, the youngest brother, was president of Shimano America, but I always thought of him as Shimano’s ambassador to the world, and he more than lived up to that de facto title. Watching Japan’s actual ambassador to the U.S. being interviewed on television after the devastating earthquake, showing compassion, confidence and class in the face of the crisis, I was reminded of Yoshi Shimano.  In all my years in business, I never met a more universally respected and admired executive.  He just wasn’t the first guy I would have chosen to sit next to on an international flight.  It was like sitting next to the Pope. It’s hard to relax, no matter how nice and down to earth he might be.

Knowing that the best companion for a red-eye flight is an empty seat, I did my best to impersonate one. I didn’t take off my shoes or loosen my belt before dinner. When the beautiful flight attendant came by with the tray of welcome aboard drinks, I took the orange juice instead of champagne.  At dinner I chose mineral water instead of Barolo.  In an effort not to offend, I probably came off as a miserable, self-righteous jerk. Through it all, Yoshi Shimano couldn’t have been nicer. 

Over dinner, we exchanged the usual pleasantries.  A question about Shimano’s fishing tackle business led him to reminisce about a salmon fishing expedition he’d taken with his family in the Queen Charlotte Islands off Canada’s rugged west coast. I inferred from his wistful tone that he didn’t get away like that very often, and that he truly appreciated escaping into nature and away from the insanity of red-eye flights and, God forbid, trade shows.  I told him that I’d used a Shimano reel on a couple of salmon fishing trips to Alaska.  Thank God I wasn’t drinking or I would have launched into my hour long “I fought the killer Chinook salmon on the mighty Kenai,” epic tale.  At least it would have put him to sleep.

Sleep didn’t come so easily for me.  The prospect of involuntary twitching and snoring made it hard to drift off into dreamland. Eventually I succumbed, only to startle myself awake with a loud, gape-mouthed snort.

At the OEM level, no less than the dealer level, the bicycle business is family business. Consider the component manufacturers when I was a rookie in the early seventies...the Shimano brothers, Shozo, Keizo, and Yoshi; the Huret brothers, Jacques and Roger; and of course the inventor of the derailluer, Tullio Campagnolo and his son Valentino. The Day brothers, Stan and F.K., of SRAM were later arrivals who changed the landscape, as passionate upstarts often do. In the process feathers can get ruffled. Years ago at an industry seminar Stan Day said, “Modern business is a full contact sport...and sometimes you have to call in the referees.” He called them in,  seeking a ruling against Shimano.

I don’t remember Jacques Huret, but I chatted occasionally with Roger in the aisles of trade shows. He was an approachable guy who looked a little like Gerard Depardieu. Tactical drinking was still a widely used business practice in those days. Suppliers to Schwinn went out for a couple of drinks at their peril, as Jacques and Roger discovered the hard way when Keith Kingbay extracted a ruinously low price commitment from them as they were reeling from a night on the town. They took their lumps like men and Huret components began appearing in place of Simplex on Schwinn Varsitys, or so the story goes.  A clear head and a cast iron liver were as important as an advanced degree from the Wharton School in those days.

Lacking any of those credentials, I was vulnerable when toward the end of the flight, Yoshi broke the silence by saying, “So Steve, I hope you’re not planning to raise your booth prices this year.” 

The wise counsel of my old mentor and lawyer, Will Lewis, echoed in my addled brain... “Beware the unguarded moment.”  Rumpled, red-eyed and jet-lagged,  I took a deep breath and groped for an answer that wouldn’t cost me a great deal of money or alienate the most powerful man in the bicycle industry. “Uh, no Yoshi,” I said, “no such plans...at this time.”  Not an excessively candid or classy response, perhaps, but attempts to escape commitment on the morning after seldom are.

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