Jamaican-Canadian was Hitachi Canada's first non-Japanese president
April 17, 2019
On a business trip to Ottawa in the winter of 2001, Howard Shearer was summoned to return to Toronto immediately for a meeting with his employers, Hitachi Canada Ltd. (HCL)
“The temperature outside was about -35 degrees Fahrenheit and I was just about to open the door to go in the building when my phone rang,” remembers the son of late Jamaican Prime Minister Hugh Shearer. “The President at the time (Masakazu Hamada) said you need to come to Toronto now. When I told him about the meeting I was going to, he told me to postpone it and catch the first flight back here.”
In the midst of racing thoughts, Shearer took a few breaths to try to calm down.
“I was thinking, ‘what have I done now’,” he said. “In the high tech business, you are always on edge, so it was a normal reaction. There is a risk attached to every decision you make.”
Back in the city and just a few hundred yards from the Delta Hotel where he was to meet his bosses over lunch, Shearer slipped on the ice.
“I went down on my knees as if I was genuflecting,” he said. “Luckily, there was a rail that I was able to grab on to. I just thought that was funny as Catholics genuflect. When I got there, I was told the decision was made for me to be the President.”
The elevation was historic in that it marked the first time that a non-Japanese would be presiding over the company that offers a broad range of innovative solutions to meet customers’ specific needs. The market sectors served includes energy, information systems, electronic devices, industrial systems, automotive products, medical & healthcare products, home improvement and consumer products.
Shearer was blindsided by the promotion.
“I, however, saw it as a vote of confidence,” he said. “At Hitachi, performance is crucial. At the time, the company was pushing to globalize its operations. How do you prepare the next level of management for your organization? If your vision is truly a global market, you must have the supply chain and that includes people to be able to take the message to the forefront of where Hitachi wants to go. When they passed the torch to me, I recognized the significance of it that failure wasn’t an option. I also had a very good team around me.”
Joining the company in 1984 as a major account manager, Shearer served as general manager of semi-conductor sales and vice-president & general manager of semi-conductor sales. He was also a member of HCL board of directors.
After holding the position of Hitachi Power System Canada Chairman for 12 months, Shearer was appointed Chief Executive Canada in December 2013.
His corporate responsibilities include supporting Hitachi's business development across all business units in Canada, implementing the company's growth strategies and interfacing with governments.
Since 1910, Hitachi has been a leader in manufacturing innovative products and solutions that support industry and social infrastructure around the globe. Hitachi focuses on Social Innovation Business that fuses IT technologies with solutions to support social infrastructure.
“We have gone through many mergers and acquisitions and my responsibility is the corporate face of Hitachi in Canada,” he pointed out. “There are 15 business units with their own leaders. I like to say that corporate is a service industry. We support the business units to develop business.”
In his teenage years, Shearer harboured political aspirations.
That isn’t surprising since his father was elected to the Jamaica House of Representatives five years after his birth.
“I discussed it with my dad who always gave me good advice,” said Shearer. “He said that it’s OK, but I needed to get a good education and choose a profession so I would have something to fall back on. He also suggested I should pursue Civil Engineering studies, but I chose Electrical Engineering because I thought it was more difficult and I relish challenges.”
After graduating from St. George’s College, he spent 18 months at Jamaica Consulting Engineers whose owner was a McGill University graduate.
“He perked my interest in the university and I applied,” said Shearer who came to Canada for the first time on an Expo ‘67 school trip. “I sent in the application around the end of July which was late. The university told me that in their reply, but indicated that the University of Windsor was still accepting applications and they were going to forward my application there which they did. Two days later, McGill said they had accepted me, but I would have to wait for the next year. They also suggested I could go to Windsor and then transfer.”
Realizing that most of his friends were in the Greater Toronto Area, the infatuation with Montreal dissipated and he transferred to McMaster University where he graduated in 1977 with an Electrical Engineering degree.
Shearer joined Erie Technological Products which, at one time, was Trenton’s largest employer. The company closed in 1992 after being in operation for 38 years.
He switched jobs after five years with the company that was bought by Japan’s Murata Manufacturing just after his departure.
“Erie had passive technology and the world was shifting to a digital space,” said Shearer. “At the time, Texas Instruments (TI) was one of the leading companies in the semi-conductor space which is the foundation of digital technology. My job was exciting and I travelled globally, but there was the fear of being redundant.”
With no Internet at the time, Shearer made a phone call to TI requesting some brochures. To his surprise, he received several manuals, most of which he read while travelling.
About a year-and-a-half after he got the books, an ad in the Globe & Mail for sales engineer at TI grabbed his attention.
“They were looking to develop a presence in Ottawa,” he said. “When I walked in for the interview with the books they sent me, I could see the shock on the manager’s face. He didn’t question me about my knowledge because he figured I was prepared. He left the interview room for a few minutes and, on his return, I was offered the job. What I didn’t know at the time was that in my travels throughout North America, I had met several people who were working for TI then.”
Nearly 18 months into is TI tenure, HCL came calling.
“I said ‘no’ because I felt I wasn’t with TI long enough to just pick up and leave,” he noted. “Hitachi was persistent and they came back at me 18 months later saying, ‘we need you’.”
Offering an opportunity to open a semi-conductor group office in Canada was too hard to resist.
Since joining Hitachi 35 years ago, Shearer has travelled to Japan – the multinational conglomerate headquarters are in Tokyo -- nearly 200 times.
“The factories are there and customers request meetings in Japan for various reasons,” said the business executive who makes the trip about two to three times annually. “When Northern Telecom existed, we did a collaboration with Nortel that involved at least 53 meetings, the majority of which were in Japan because that’s where the research lab is.”
While not fluent in Japanese, Shearer – who has a Law degree from the University of Toronto which recognized him with an Arbor Award 16 years ago -- has a working knowledge of it.
“Language is important, but understanding culture, from my standpoint, is even more important because that allows you to choose the right words in approaching a conversation,” he said.
Though Shearer is 24/7 workaholic, he encourages his employees to spend quality time with his family.
Once an avid golfer who enjoys cooking, Shearer – who was never married and has no children -- now spends whatever spare time he has keeping in touch with friends, some of whom he has known since the age of 10.
“I am also in touch with persons I attended university with and those that I met through work,” he added. “We get together and sort of mentor each other indirectly. We are all in interesting spaces. Some are retired and some are moving up the corporate ladder. If you accept the idea that there’s always something to learn, then the discourse becomes very interesting. Maintaining friendships and building new ones allow you to improve your knowledge in so many things you don’t know and clarify things you thought you knew. So it’s a constant process.”
There is one person that he’s in contact with daily though they are nearly 1,782 miles apart.
Lunette Shearer, Hugh Shearer’s first wife and the mother of their three children, is 94.
“She has been a great influence on my life,” said her only son who travels to Jamaica to be with her on Mother’s Day, her birthday, at Christmas and at least two other times yearly when she says she’s not feeling well. “She is the nurturing mom who committed herself to her kids and was adamant that we pursued higher education.”
The eldest sibling – Dr. Heather Shearer – is a physician in Jamaica while the youngest, Hope Shearer-Maxwell, died two years ago. She was a member of the Overseas Examinations Commission.
Turning 69 this year and in the twilight of an illustrious career, Shearer isn’t in retirement mode.
“I am not even thinking about it,” the former Metrolinx board member added. “The beauty about Hitachi is that it’s like a treasure trove of technology and people. At some in time, I will retire. In the meantime, as long as I think I can add value to the company and continue with what I am doing, then I will work. I am still highly motivated and my mind is even sharper. There is a never a dull day here for me. When it’s a bad day, you learn something and when it’s a good day, you learn more.”
Shearer is a member of several boards and associations, including the McMaster University Dean of Engineering Advisory Board, the Energy Council of Canada, the Canadian Nurses Foundation, the Canadian Nuclear Association and Laboratories, the Japan Society, the Toronto Japanese Association of Commerce & Industry and the B’nai Brith Canada League for Human Rights Special Advisory Council.