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Virginia Tech Adjunct Instructor Mike Swain ’65, at front, fourth from left, assists during a 2007 study abroad program in Japan.

Virginia Tech Adjunct Instructor Mike Swain ’65, at front, fourth from left, assists during a 2007 study abroad program in Japan.
Virginia Tech Adjunct Instructor Mike Swain ’65, at front, fourth from left, assists during a 2007 study abroad program in Japan.

By Mike Swain ‘65

On a Saturday in mid-November 2004, my wife, Janey, and I were on a walk through Yoyogi Park, just a block from our apartment in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. It was a gorgeous autumn morning in Tokyo. Bright yellow gingko tree leaves were falling and had completely carpeted the ground.  

Because of my busy travel schedule, our walks were great opportunities for some “talk time,” and on this particular morning, we had a lot to talk about. A month earlier, I had submitted my formal request to retire. My nearly 40-year career with global aluminum giant Alcoa would soon be coming to an end. With mixed emotions, we would be leaving Tokyo after calling it “home” for the past five years. 

There is a line from a Japanese poem about the “circle of life” that struck a chord with me as I contemplated retirement: “Be like the leaf in a Japanese Garden. Fall gracefully when your time comes to let go. Trust in the Circle. To end is to begin.” 

I had joined Alcoa in early January 1966, just three weeks after my December graduation from Virginia Tech. But now, after a long and successful career, it was time to let go. I had other things I wanted to do — start my own business and teach at the university level — and the clock was ticking. 

A few weeks after I submitted my retirement notification, something interesting happened. Alcoa offered me a consulting contract on a large project for Alcoa Australia, to start upon my retirement. After we moved back to the United States, I built up a small consulting practice, using the Alcoa contract as a base. Just like that, my own business was born: The Swain Company LLC. 

“Trust in the Circle.”

An important blind date

Janey and I met in the spring of our sophomore year in college — May 1, 1963, to be exact. I was a Citizen-Leader Track cadet (in today’s terminology) in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, meaning I was not pursuing a military commission. I proudly wore the “Blue 1” patch on my sleeve as a member of the winning Eager Squad competition from the previous spring.

On this day, I was with a group of cadet classmates, one of whom had a girlfriend at what is now Radford University. She had arranged blind dates for the rest of us. When we picked up our dates in the lobby of the dorm, I was smitten by a cute, dark-haired girl by the name of Janey Bonwell. The problem was, we had each been paired with someone else. Later, at a party, I “engineered” a switch so that I ended up with Janey for the rest of the evening. We started dating seriously after summer break, and we’ve been together ever since. We attended Ring Dance in the spring of 1964 and became engaged that October, in the fall of our senior year.

Janey graduated from Radford in June 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in education. I graduated from Virginia Tech that December with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. We were married three days later.

My first assignment at Alcoa was as an engineer in a manufacturing plant outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where we were making aluminum components for the 2.75-inch Folding-Fin Aerial Rocket for the Vietnam War. From there, I moved to the powder division, which supplied atomized aluminum powder for solid rocket propellant for the space program. While in Pittsburgh, I attended night school classes at The University of Pittsburgh, culminating in an MBA in 1972.

After Pittsburgh came five moves in 20 years: Rochester, New York; Chicago; Longview, Texas; St. Louis; Missouri; and Cleveland, Ohio. I held positions in engineering, sales, product management, production management, and marketing management.

In the mid 1980s, in St. Louis, I was Alcoa’s corporate account manager at the McDonald Aircraft Company, the prime contractor on the F-15, F-18, and AV-8B aircraft programs back in the heyday of their production. That job led to a promotion to business unit headquarters in Cleveland in 1986, where I became marketing manager for aircraft and aerospace components. A year later, I was named vice president and global commercial manager for Alcoa’s transportation components business in Cleveland.

As a 21-year-old “kid” leaving Blacksburg back in 1965, I never thought that one day I would be traveling the globe, doing business in 35 countries and in charge of all commercial activities for what was almost a billion-dollar business. There was no question that an engineering degree from Virginia Tech opened the door for me at Alcoa and helped me develop the problem-solving skills needed to succeed in a major corporation. The Corps taught me self-discipline and provided leadership training that facilitated my rise through the management ranks.

Along the way, Janey and I had three children, each born in a different state and thus each claiming a different “hometown.” I couldn’t get any of them to go to Virginia Tech, but they have all done pretty well in spite of this serious shortcoming. Two made it through medical school and are now practicing physicians; one achieved a graduate degree in literature and is a fantastic writer and a super-mom. All three are married and each has three children, which works out to a total of nine grandkids.

A move to Tokyo

Back in 1999 in Cleveland, as a business unit vice president in a Fortune 100 company with 34 years of service, I was pleased with what I had achieved up to that point in my career. On the home front, our children were all grown and out on their own (or finishing medical school) and were all doing well.

Janey and I were back where we started —just the two of us (life is a circle!). Janey was established in our small suburban community of Hudson, Ohio, and was active in our church and several other community organizations. We also were enjoying the three nearby grandchildren we had at the time. So, as we began the year 2000, we were both in that “life is good” mode. That’s when I should have seen it coming.

A few weeks after the start of the new year, I would arrive home from work one evening, asking Janey to sit down, pouring her a glass of chardonnay, and seeing the look of shock on her face, as I said, “How’d you like to move to Tokyo?”

It was definitely my fault. I had led a project team that ended up proposing, as a solution to problems we had achieving targeted market share in Japan, that rather than continuing to export to Japan, we should follow the Japanese model and become a domestic producer there. In other words, our team recommended that Alcoa create a new Japanese subsidiary company and build a manufacturing plant “in country,” just as the Japanese do with automotive plants in the U.S.

A few days after our proposal and request for funding, I received an email from Alcoa’s CEO, Paul O’Neill (who later became secretary of the treasury under President George W. Bush), that said: “Tell me again, in two sentences or less, why we need to do this.” I did, and a couple of days later, the project was approved. A few days after that, they asked me to move to Tokyo to manage the start up of the new business and run the company as its first president. At a time when most people our age were planning their retirement, Janey and I started making plans to move 7,000 miles away to the Land of the Rising Sun.

We loved our life in Japan. We traveled the country at every opportunity, seeing places like Matsushima and Hakone; the shrines and temples of Kyoto, Nara, Kamakura, and Nikko; and the picturesque Itsukushima Shrine and the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, to name a few. We climbed Mount Fuji, stayed for a weekend at a Buddhist Monastery in Kyushu, enjoyed many onsen (hot springs), took an overnight ferry from Tokyo to Hokkaido and went fly fishing in the mountains, joined a hiking club and hiked dozens of trails outside Tokyo, played golf with Japanese friends, and stayed in ryokans (Japanese inns) whenever we could.

Alcoa provided cultural training for us before we moved and arranged for ongoing language lessons. When we arrived, we immersed ourselves in the culture and the language. We wanted to become truly “bi-cultural” as opposed to living in an “American expatriate community cocoon” as we saw so many expatriates do. We also had to adjust from a life spent mostly in suburbia to life in one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. Greater Tokyo is home to over 36 million people. We moved there from a town of 22,000.

We adapted, and we ended up thriving. We became as comfortable in Tokyo as we had been back in Hudson, Ohio. Tokyo became “home.” When it came time to leave, Alcoa offered “re-entry” counseling before our return to the States — and we needed it.

A dream opportunity

The idea that life is a circle and every ending a beginning is a religious and philosophical concept deeply rooted in the Japanese psyche. I can think of no better personal illustration of this concept than the story of how I was able to fulfill another dream of mine: to teach at the university level.

One day, early in my time in Japan, I received an email from a Virginia Tech professor, Rich Wokutch. He had been searching for Hokie alumni in Japan through the Virginia Tech Alumni Association. In an email, he explained that he was organizing a study abroad trip to Japan for Virginia Tech students and needed “boots on the ground” to help with visits to local businesses and with logistics and language. I readily agreed to help, happy to have an opportunity to “give back” to my alma mater. Throughout the rest of my tour in Japan, working with Wokutch and his study abroad co-leader, Professor Devi Gnyawali, I was able to assist with several Asia trips.

Not long after I retired and moved back to Hudson, Ohio, Wokutch, who was now the head of the Department of Management at the Pamplin College of Business, let me know that he had a teaching position opening up in the future in the regular MBA program in Blacksburg. He asked me if I would be interested, and I jumped at the chance to fulfill a dream. After being away for over 40 years, I would be returning to the classroom in Blacksburg. I had come full circle!

I became an adjunct instructor in the Department of Management. In fall 2007, I taught a full-time MBA program class in international management. I also was able to return to Japan with 18 students as an assistant on a study abroad trip. From 2011 to 2013, I taught a capstone course called Global Strategic Management in the professional MBA program. In addition, I’ve given over 40 guest lectures in other graduate and undergraduate classes at Virginia Tech, Case Western, and Kent State.

My teaching days ended with changes in Virginia Tech’s MBA program in 2014, but I remain active on the “guest lecture” circuit and continue to do some consulting. These activities, along with an active family (did I mention the nine grandchildren?) and interests in travel, fishing, golf, and hiking that I share with my wife, combine to keep me pretty busy in so-called “retirement.”

The ending of my Alcoa career launched more than a few “beginnings” for me. And I certainly learned to “Trust in the Circle.”

“Be like the leaf. Fall gracefully when your time comes to let go. Trust in the Circle. To end is to begin.”

— From "Life in a Japanese Garden" by Charmaine Aserappa