Touchpaper: Shimano – time to try a little tenderness?

“Would you like to visit Japan and Singapore and Malaysia to meet our people and see how we work?”
Shimano’s invitation was easy to accept; harder to understand was why they would stage such an adventure, inviting 20-or-so journalists from across Europe on a week-long, whistle stop tour of four facilities in Asia. No new product to show; strictly a cultural matter.
Shimano inspires admiration more easily than affection, but who, in truth, knows its people? This Eastern adventure was clearly intended to change that, from which we can deduce that it is important to Shimano to do so. The behemoth has a heart. For further evidence, look no further than the bicycle museum in Osaka, or Shimano Cycling World at the Singapore Sports Hub – two excellent facilities, both with a stronger emphasis on cycling than corporate ambition.
Some of the product managers who attended a press briefing in Japan were jokingly called ‘rock stars’ as the shutters clicked, but the idea wasn’t so far fetched. Shimano’s Japanese engineers are glimpsed only occasionally in Europe – at trade shows, press camps, or at the WorldTour’s blue riband events – and yet they are responsible for technologies that win the biggest races in professional cycling and which sell in unimaginable quantities.
Asked to conjure a mental image of Shimano, however, and most are likely to picture a product, rather than a person. It manufactures highly efficient, unfailingly functional components; some of the best approach beauty, but Shimano has failed to inspire the warmth routinely afforded its Italian rival, Campagnolo. Is it time to reconsider and to show Shimano a little love as well as respect?

We’ll publish a series of reports in our Eyewitness column in the weeks ahead: from Shimano’s high-tech Sakai City headquarters, its factory at Shimonoseki in southern Japan, and from its outposts in Singapore and Malaysia. For the purposes of this article, however, it’s possible to share some broader observations immediately:
Based on the factories we visited, Shimano’s employees are treated well. Factory work is typically mundane and repetitive wherever it takes place, but conditions were clean and safe in each of the facilities we visited, and the chance of progression was offered to all. Shimano makes no bones about using labour costs to control the cost to the consumer (high-end, small batch production takes place in Japan, while low to mid-range, mass production takes place in South East Asia) but the working environment varied little between Shimonoseki and Singapore.
Shimano allowed its staff to take their chances with the visiting press pack. Its media managers operated with a light touch at conferences, clarifying questions lost in translation more than anything. When the engineers joined us for dinners, often served with alcohol, there was no attempt at all to filter questions – or answers. The paranoia typical in manufacturing forbade cameras on the factory floor, but photographic prohibition aside, the press pack was unfettered.
Fun is a key word for Shimano and products are developed to deliver more of it. Enjoyment of nature is a corporate mission and is given as the ultimate reason for any number of engineering challenges. Marketing puff? More than a dash, no doubt, but Shimano’s engineers were clear that only Dura-Ace (and XTR for mountain bikes) had been designed expressly to win races. Road product manager Takao Harada seemed more enthused by ergonomics that would help his wife and kids gain more enjoyment from cycling.
Function is Shimano’s calling card. SRAM’s wireless eTap drivetrain was the elephant in the conference room at Sakai City headquarters, but no one who works there was unnerved by a development widely heralded as a victory for the American company. Shimano’s engineers seemed more concerned by how well eTap will perform a year down the line. “Our challenge is not to give you what you think you want now,” said global marketing chief Manabu Tatekawa, “but to surprise and delight you.”
Simplicity is afforded the highest importance; a single shift is regarded as better than several, for example. The automated Syncroshift system for Di2, launched with the XTR mountain bike groupset, is being developed for road, we were told (for Dura-Ace, in all probability).
Practicality is a greater drive for Shimano than immediate commercial gain, though let’s not kid ourselves, Shimano is an astonishing commercial success, above all else. The engineers in Japan were asked when an electronic, Di2 transmission would trickle down to the 105 group. When it becomes possible to source motors and cables of sufficient quality without unduly increasing cost, was the reply. “Of course we will do it,” Tatekawa said, “but low quality Di2 is not fun.”
The aforementioned stance on Di2, and the lack of concern over eTap, leads us to another observation: that there are certain technologies Shimano believes in and others on which it is lukewarm at best. It’s reassuring when manufacturers place an engineering philosophy above commercial concerns. Campagnolo’s foot-dragging over disc brakes might be seen as a parallel: a reluctance that makes plain its belief in that particular technology.
Is Shimano entitled then to some love? Brand loyalty is a nuanced concept (and, ultimately, self-defeating: ‘ride the best, from whomever’ might be a more practical mantra) but has Shimano earned more than grudging respect?
It has a 95-year heritage, more teams in the WorldTour than you can shake a stick at, including paying customers, and a product range that embraces every form of cycling. Vicenza is likely always to inspire romance more easily than Osaka, but should consideration of Shimano always be confined to cold appreciation? Perhaps it’s time to try a little tenderness.

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