2000 Honoree - Sam Yamada
[Note: The following biography was prepared and presented at the 2000 gala by Board Member and KRON TV News Anchor Emerald Yeh.]
Our second story is about a banker with traditional Japanese roots who in his mid-career came from Japan to run a bank in America in a not-so traditional way. So path-breaking were his ways from his Japanese predecessors and colleagues that he came to be written up in the Wall Street Journal in 1987 as "one of Japan's best-known overseas bankers who represents a new breed of Japanese businessmen."
The article goes on to say that not only has he "adopted a distinctly American management style," but that while 'most U.S.-based Japanese businessmen keep low profiles and live in enclaves, he's active in a dozen professional and social organizations."
So how did a third-generation Tokyo-born heir to Ajinomoto,a world-famous food seasoning company, not only come to "re-define how Japanese companies should be run in America," but absorb, then impart to his colleagues and employees the core values of American philanthropy?
That's the fascinating story of Osamu Yamada.
It was Sam Yamada's grandfather who founded the Ajinomoto company and his father who willed the family business to him. But Sam passed the opportunity on to his younger brother in order to continue his already noteworthy career in banking. Sam Yamada was in the early years of his 37-year career with Mitsubishi Bank and was already being called upon to make presentations to the Diet, or Japanese parliament, about economic planning issues." As steeped as he was in Japanese government and banking affairs, Sam Yamada yearned to go to the United States.
In 1964, he was sent to Zurich for and then to the New York branch of Mitsubishi bank as a junior officer.
It was during this initial stay in New York that Sam Yamada experienced what he calls the 'first trigger" in his exposure/awakening to America's charitable ways. Being in the U.S. for the first time, everything was new to him. But particularly striking was how many of the bank's American employees, young and old, were involved in community and charity work. When Sam's children's school needed help raising funds to build a new wing, he was asked, for obvious reasons, to approach Japanese companies based in New York for donations, but on this front, he had very little luck.
Sam Yamada saw this problem as one rooted in a cultural difference.
Still, he was struck by how in America, even poor people found something to give. If not money, then time to the community.
After his 4-year stint in New York, Sam Yamada returned to Japan and was re-assigned by Mitsubishi bank to open a branch in Singapore. In1978, he was sent back to New York, this time to be the general manager of the branch there, the top job of Mitsubishi Bank outside of Japan.
During this second New York stay, Sam went through his next stage of observing Japanese and American differences in philanthropy. Again, he was called upon to approach Japanese companies in New York to solicit donations, this time to help build a new wing in the Metropolitan Museum for an Asian art exhibit.
Again, he ran into polite rebuffs. And thus it was during his third and this time, permanent assignment in the U.S. that Osamu Yamada would form what he calls "my own NEW Japanese company,"
That company was The Bank of California, acquired by Mitsubishi Bank in 1984. Sam was convinced that to run the bank successfully, he had to run it American-style. So in accepting the position of chairman, Sam laid out three conditions to his higher-ups in Japan.
One, he would have autonomy in running the bank, rather than adhere to the tradition of having to consult with the Tokyo office for all major decisions. Two, he would staff management with largely Americans and a few Japanese, rather than the other way around. And the few Japanese had to be Americanized and U.S.educated.
He also wanted to shatter any chauvinistic image. He had met highly accomplished women in his world travels and wanted to invite high-profile women to serve on the bank's board. He was soon able to enlist Dianne Feinstein as well as another household name, Shirley Temple Black.
Finally, he was determined that The Bank of California would be very involved in the community, with charity, volunteerism and community relations being strategic parts of its cultural identity. By now, Sam Yamada had honed his views on philanthropy and its importance to a company and an individual. On the company level, he says businesses that demonstrate a social conscience are seen as more sensitive to its customers' needs than those that don't.
In an address to the Japan Society Conference in New York, in 1991, Sam was succinct in addressing the usual excuses against philanthropy.
"To those who say they lack time and human resources, I say focus your giving. Set priorities and stick to them. Don't spread yourself a mile wide and an inch deep. To those who say they lack financial resources, I recommend, "Dig deeper," and look for alternatives. Put your valuable skills into service. Team up with effective partners. Participate in an organization's management."
Sam Yamada himself set aside 5 percent of his time for community involvement, serving on the boards of the San Francisco Symphony and Opera, United Way of the Bay Area, USF, UC Berkeley's business school, and the California Chamber of Commerce among others.
The Bank of California also encouraged and supported the staff's volunteerism, spotlighting their efforts with Volunteer Recognition Awards and making cash gifts toward causes that various employees are actively involved in, such as, homeless youngsters, after-school sports and battered women and children.
When the Loma Prieta quake struck in 1989, Sam and his wife Eko went to the Marina and helped victims carry furniture out of their damaged or threatened homes. For Sam, this was a moment of yet another revelation.
His wife Eko had been active in the community herself for yearsHelping quake victims prompted her to reveal why.
She told her husband that when she came to the U.S. as a student just after the war, first by boat to the West Coast, then by train to Kentucky, she had so little money that to save what she little she had, she lived on milk and doughnuts during the journey and used soap to brush her teeth rather than buy toothpaste. Eko says that an elderly American couple sitting next to this young Japanese girl (remember, this was shortly after World War II), took notice of her and bought her a sandwich to eat. It was a simple gesture of kindness she would never forget.
When Sam learned of this story from his wife, it escalated his involvement. The Bank of California donated half a million dollars in earthquake relief.
So what did the folks back in Japan think of Sam Yamada's efforts and philanthropic impulses? They awarded him Japan's Minister of Foreign Affairs Award in 1990. Sam was the first individual rather than corporation and the first financial industry representative to receive this award for his work toward promoting mutual understanding between the U.S. and Japan.
But that's not to say that being a high-profile community member was all work and no games. One of Sam's stand-out memories is the pro-am charity tournament he and Arnold Palmer won. Arnold Palmer shot a 70; Mr. Yamada was no slouch; he shot a 76.
In 1991, Osamu Yamada retired from The Bank of California. He continues to make San Francisco his home. He has 4 grown children, all very educated and accomplished, including an Olympic swimmer, linguist and author, and anthropologist. There are 7grandchildren, 3 of them live here.
Although Sam is now retired and able to enjoy his family and some traveling, the word "retired" is very loosely defined in his vocabulary. He continues his involvement in the business world as a director of Solectron Corporation, a large electronics manufacturing services company.
Sam often travels aboard for Solectron and advises the company on international strategies and overseas operations. He also serves as an advisor the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi. And Sam is still on the boards of the San Francisco Opera, USF's Center for the Pacific Rim, UC Berkeley's business school and the George Lucas Education Foundation.
Education and cross-cultural understanding remains a big passion of his. He speaks fondly of his many visits to school campuses to talk to students about race relations, cultural differences and even Japan's foreign policy.
Sam Yamada has a touchingly simple way of explaining why he's done all he's done and continues to remain involved. He says "My heart invites me to."
And may I speak for all of us, Sam, when I say OUR hearts welcome you, and I say welcome because it was just this year that Osamu Yamada became a U.S. citizen. One of his first civic duties was to serve on a jury for 8 days last month. Needless to say, he brought his characteristic diligence and conscientiousness to the task.