What lessons did Subaru learn from the 2011 Japanese earthquake, tsunami?

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Editor’s note: This story is part of a package in the March 8 issue looking back at the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Nearly 10 years ago, Tom Doll and two Subaru of America executives boarded a plane in Newark, N.J., and flew to Tokyo for Fuji Heavy Industries’ annual board of directors meeting.

It would have been a routine business trip if not for the date: Sunday, March 13, 2011.

Two days prior, Japan had been rocked by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and a tsunami. Despite the obvious destruction that the natural disaster caused, it still wasn’t entirely clear what the full extent of the impact would be.

Yoshio Hasunuma, then CEO of Subaru of America, and Sam Komine, then an executive liaison between Subaru of America and Fuji, were already in Tokyo for the meeting.

“I get a call first thing Saturday morning from Sam Komine, and he says that by the time you guys get here on Monday everything should be back to normal,” Doll, who was COO at the time and now is CEO, told Automotive News via video last month from Subaru’s U.S. headquarters in Camden, N.J.

Doll had his doubts, which he voiced to the colleagues with whom he was scheduled to travel: Tim Mahoney, the brand’s chief marketing officer, and Tim Colbeck, senior vice president of sales.

“Before we got on the plane, I said to Colbeck and Mahoney, ‘Are you guys sure you want to go?’ ” Doll recalled, pointing out that there was also a nuclear reactor in Fukushima that had been damaged and was leaking radiation.

“They said, ‘Yeah, we’ll go. It will be an adventure. And maybe things will be OK.’ ”

But as their plane descended into Narita International Airport, it became clear that things were not OK.

“The flight attendant comes on and says, ‘Oh by the way, when we get there, please do not be alarmed, but power into the airport is very little. The moving sidewalks are not working and you’ll notice that the lights are just dim.’ We get there and it was a lot worse than we thought,” Doll said. “Not only were the moving sidewalks not working, but it was actually dark because we arrived in a rainstorm.”

Buses from the airport to downtown Tokyo couldn’t run normal routes. Instead of going across Tokyo Bay, the detour had buses going around it, Doll said, causing delays and massive lines.

Eventually, a car was sent to pick up the executives. It was the first and only time Doll had a private ride from the airport to his hotel, he quipped.

The three executives arrived at their hotel, unpacked and were greeted with aftershocks.

“We had a few drinks to settle ourselves down because the whole time the place is shaking like you wouldn’t believe,” Doll said. “I’ve been over to Japan a lot, and I’ve experienced a lot of earthquakes over there and tremors, but I never experienced anything like this.”

The sound of hangers in closets smacking together and safety announcements filled their rooms while they tried to sleep.

“At three o’clock in the morning, after a massive tremor struck, I called Colbeck up and told him, ‘I don’t know about you guys, but I’m out of here. I don’t think I can take this for three or four days. I’m going to investigate coming back right away,’ ” Doll recalled. “Tim said, ‘Count me in,’ and Mahoney said the same thing.”

Finding a taxi willing to take the executives back out to the airport on Tuesday morning was difficult. They eventually found one, but it cost them around $1,000, Doll recalled.

The three execs made their way through the chaotic airport and boarded an afternoon flight to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. The only problem? Their cars were still in Newark.

“All we cared about was getting back in the country,” Doll said. “We didn’t care if we we’re going to San Francisco, Chicago or New York.”

They attended the Wednesday board meeting via video. At one point, Ikuo Mori, then CEO of Fuji, addressed Doll.

“He says to me, ‘I heard you guys came to Japan. But then you returned right away?’ ” Doll recalled. “He said, ‘I would never have come if I were you. I would never have come to Japan. It was silly for you to even attempt to come.’ ”

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