Our First Years – How DENSO Started in North America

  • DENSO 75 Year Banner
  • Man sitting in office

    Akira “Andy” Kataoka pictured at DENSO Manufacturing Tennessee, Inc. in Maryville, Tennessee.  Kataoka, the first Japanese employee to work in the United States for Nippondenso, now DENSO, served as the Maryville operations president from July 1991 until July 1995. 

By all accounts, Akira “Andy” Kataoka was “all over the map” when he first came to the United States. But DENSO’s first North American employee wasn’t wandering aimlessly or indiscriminate in his destinations, as the idiom suggests.  

Instead, he carefully plotted and planned across the country on a Greyhound bus with a suitcase full of starter generators and the bold dream of establishing DENSO in the American automotive market.  

“When I first came to California in 1964, I didn’t know what to expect,” Kataoka explained. “Nobody knew the DENSO name and people weren’t sure about Toyota. But I quickly learned that we needed to stay and be close to our customers.” 

Turns out those earliest customers were closer to Chicago than Los Angeles, so Kataoka set out for the Midwest to explore small motor and agricultural business opportunities and spend more time in Detroit, just a few hours away.

The American Midwest 

He set his sights for no less than the king of farming equipment located in the heart of the American corn belt: the John Deere company. Within a year, and after 125 visits, he secured a contract from the heavy-duty giant to supply DENSO’s high quality starters. 

In 1971, Kataoka moved to Detroit, which was still the center of the automotive universe and home to Motown music, Hitsville USA, Joe Louis and Rosa Parks.  

“I wondered how it would be best to get business with the Big Three,” Kataoka said referring to Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, all located in the metropolitan area surrounding the city. “A couple years later, and after talking and planning with many engineers, we held a demonstration to showcase DENSO technology.” 

Ballroom Exhibitions 

Kataoka’s exhibition tactic had been proven more than a decade earlier by Eizo Imura, DENSO Managing Director of Marketing at the time. His pioneering concept was to assemble company and customer engineers in a single location and surround them with product displays while sharing next-generation concepts and innovations.

  • Andy Pouring Coffee

    Kataoka could be seen pouring coffee for other team members on any given day.  After 35 years of service to DENSO, Akira “Andy” Kataoka retired in 1999.  Since his arrival in 1964, the company had grown to 16 locations with more than 113,000 employees.

DENSO International America, Inc. – the company’s North American headquarters, now located in Southfield, Michigan – didn’t yet exist, and access to Big Three headquarters was off limits, so the intrepid Kataoka rented ballrooms at nearby hotels.  

“That first year, in 1974, maybe 100 people from the carmakers attended. The second year, we probably doubled our visitors. By year three we had 500 engineers, sales and other automotive people taking a look at the DENSO technology on display,” Kataoka shared.  

Among them was the future President of Ford Motor Company, Donald Peterson, who was looking for high-performance compressors and invited DENSO to develop something new.

“I sent this news to Japan; we talked it over and determined it was a great opportunity for building a business relationship with the iconic brand. From there, we secured Cadillac injector contracts from GM and programs with Chrysler. After 1980, business quickly expanded,” Kataoka said.  

Changing Times, Shared Aspirations 

When Andy Kataoka arrived in the United States, it was experiencing significant cultural, social and economic shifts. As an outsider from Japan, he instinctively knew the road ahead would be challenging. But the DENSO Spirit drove him on as he met with key people throughout the automotive industry.  

“It was important that we recognize and discuss our differences and start to combine opinions,” Kataoka remembered. “I knew, and they knew, Japan is Japan, and the U.S. is the U.S. Once we started from there, we had effective customer conversations, better understood one another and the relationships improved.” 

Karen Croly, who joined DENSO in 1979, said Kataoka brought that same approach to his role as President of DENSO’s North American operations, which he held from the early 1970s, when the company was called Nippondenso, until 1999 when he retired.  

  • Group photo posing with GM Award

    On May 17, 1997, Kataoka experienced what he calls his proudest moment as a DENSO employee: earning General Motors’ coveted Corporation of the Year Award from a field of more than 30,000 global suppliers.  Kataoka (front row, second from left) presented the award to all North American team members.

Actions Speak Louder  

“He knew how to communicate and engage with people in every level of the job and with our customers,” Croly explained. “He was always approachable and willing to share to help develop DENSO and its employees. When the afternoon rolled around, it was Kataoka-san who made iced coffee for everyone who wanted it. It was just one example of how he made us more of a family than a workplace.” 

In 1997, Kataoka experienced what he calls his proudest moment as a DENSO employee: earning General Motors’ coveted Corporation of the Year Award from a field of more than 30,000 global suppliers. 

In 2008, Kataoka was recognized by Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs for his years of service in building diplomatic relations between the two countries. In addition to nurturing trust and friendship with U.S. customers, suppliers and communities across the nation, he is one of the founders of the Japanese School and the Japan Business Society, both in Detroit.

“Dreaming is not just motivation, but something that gives you a clue about what you need to do at the moment,” Kataoka shared in a 2008 article. “I want DENSO employees to keep creating the dream for the future.”