The Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)



The Board of Directors of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles announced on Wednesday that president and CEO Gregory Willis “has elected to resign from his position effective Aug. 22, 2012 for personal reasons.”

The board, which met on Tuesday night, also said that an interim deputy director has been appointed and a search for a new president/CEO will be conducted. No additional details were disclosed.

The abrupt exit of Willis, whose appointment was announced in January, comes after reports of his alleged corporate crimes in France were circulated in the Little Tokyo community. He had appeared at public events on behalf of JACCC as recently as Aug. 12, when he rode in  the Nisei Week Grand Parade.

Gregory Willis

Although the JACCC said it hired him after an extensive national search for his “impressive range of multi-sector professional experience in Japanese, American and international business settings” and his “unique mix of vision, business and management acumen and proven leadership success,” both Johnston and Company of Culver City, the executive search firm hired by the JACCC, and the center’s own nine-member search committee were apparently unaware that Willis had been convicted and sentenced in a French court until that information was presented to the board last week by members of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR).

NCRR had been concerned about recent layoffs and resignations of staff at JACCC, and held a meeting with Willis and Board Chair Sandy Sakamoto on Aug. 14 to discuss working conditions at the center since Willis took over. The criminal charges against Willis were not raised at that time, but NCRR subsequently sent documentation to the JACCC board and asked for an explanation.

The board said in a statement on Monday, “Recently, members of the community have expressed concerns regarding personnel-related matters. The board of the JACCC wishes to reassure those concerned that these matters are being properly addressed and will be handled appropriately. With a commitment to treat everyone with utmost respect and dignity, these matters are being handled in confidence and will not be commented upon by the JACCC. Public discussion, media, and social networking while the JACCC addresses these matters could unintentionally interfere with the process affecting the organization, the community of which it is a part, as well as many good, dedicated and hard-working people.”

Alerted by individuals close to JACCC who, using the popular Internet search engine Google, had come across information that raised concerns about the enigmatic Willis, The Rafu Shimpo discovered a connection between Willis and a shuttered manufacturing plant in France. What was unearthed was an intricate, international web of acquisitions, corporate aliases, union disputes, and lawsuits.

According to his online resume, Willis joined Torrance-based Toyota Motor Sales USA in 1981, rising through the ranks and working in different divisions until 2000 when he was named vice president and managing director of Toyota’s Mexico Startup Project.

He left Toyota in 2003 to become senior managing director for Michigan-based SPE Investments. Around the same time, Catalina Capital Advisors LLC was created, offering automotive supply chain management consultancy services. Willis is identified as CEO of Catalina Capital Advisors with Catherine Zickfeld as chief financial officer.

Between 2006 and 2011, SPE reportedly acquired 12 international manufacturing facilities with annual revenues of over $150 million. On his resume, Willis is credited with developing SPE’s portfolio strategy to acquire small niche companies at attractive valuations, then applying the Toyota Operating System principles to develop the newly acquired facilities.

Financially troubled Le Atelier Thome Genot (ATG), in Nouzonville, France, was one of the companies acquired by Catalina Capital Advisors in October 2004. Willis became CEO of the new entity, dubbed ATG Catalina.

A page from French newspaper L'Union published Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012.

According to French media, what reportedly followed was a series of monetary transactions between ATG Catalina and three other companies — Two Harbors Holdings, Catalina Precision Products, and Spring Engineering and Manufacturing. Online sources identify Willis as president of both Two Harbors and Catalina PP, while Spring Engineering is noted as a DBA (“doing business as”) of SPE Investments.

Meanwhile, SPE, Spring, and Catalina PP all list the same business address on Lilley Road in Canton, Mich.

Less than two years later, the facility closed and its assets liquidated. More than 300 workers lost their jobs. The former employees and the unions took their case to the French Commercial Court.

The French newspaper Le Monde reports that an international arrest warrant has been issued for Willis and Zickfeld, who failed to appear at a hearing to answer charges of “possession of stolen property, misuse of corporate funds and bankruptcy by diversion.” As a result, each was convicted in absentia and sentenced on Sept. 8, 2009 to five years in prison and fined 20 million euros by the Correctional Court of Rheims. Journal L’Union ran a photo of Willis, saying that he had “vanished into thin air.”

Willis and Zickfeld made news earlier in March 2009 when Catalina PP abruptly shuttered two auto parts manufacturing plants, Aradco and Aramco, located in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.  Dave Hall, writing for The Windsor Star, reported that more than 80 workers were laid off and were owed $2.4 million in severance and vacation pay. Most of workers had between 10 and 25 years of seniority.

In both France and Canada, the workers staged protests, demanding severance and vacation pay. The French workers put up a sign saying, “Thome-Genot, give us back our dignity, our pride and our jobs.” A labor leader in Canada accused Catalina’s owners of being “criminal.”

The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) reported on Nov. 24, 2009 that members of the Canadian Auto Worker (CAW) union and their supporters picketed the Detroit offices of Comerica Bank to protest the bank’s involvement with Catalina PP.

Comerica subsequently filed a complaint in August 2010 against Catalina PP and last Jan. 26 was awarded a $4.28 million judgment by U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh in Michigan.

A second suit filed Nov. 17, 2010 by Comerica names Willis, Zickfeld, James R. Jones, Stone Canyon Ventures LP, West Coast Opportunity Fund LLC, and Sand Harbor Investment Company LLC as defendants.

French officials have become aware of Willis’ hire by JACCC. On Tuesday, Philippe Le Clair of the Journal L’Union wrote, “Greg Willis was located and obviously he is doing very well.” An announcement of Willis’ appointment as CEO, from the JACCC website, was included with the article.

Le Clair commented that it was easy for Willis to “plunder a French company, then set sail for the United States” and added, tongue-in-cheek, that Thome Genot workers “will be pleased to learn that their former boss (is enjoying) happy days in Los Angeles, far from the French prisons.”

U.S. and French officials did not immediately respond to questions about whether Willis faces extradition to France, but L’Union quoted Fabrice Belargent of the Prosecutor’s Office in Rheims as saying that French authorities already knew Willis was in Los Angeles.

“Our challenge lies in his extradition,” he said. “In February 2010, we sent U.S. authorities a demand for his extradition, as we did for his partner, Catherine Zickfeld. Legally, we went to the limit of what we could do.

“The mandate is issued by Interpol … But to this day, we still have no response from U.S. authorities. The case is ongoing, but … when it comes to fetching U.S. citizens convicted in France, the United States is particularly demanding.”

The article added that extradition is complicated by the fact that criminal laws differ in all 50 states.

Several attempts were made by Rafu to contact Willis, who has been unreachable for comment.

The JACCC has not disclosed what it paid Johnston and Company to find its new executive, but Alan Kumamoto of the consulting firm Kumamoto Associates, former president of the Center for Nonprofit Management, said fees for such services can typically run in the range of $75,000 to $100,000 for an organization the size of the JACCC.

On its website, Johnston and Company claims to specialize in recruitment for non-profit and public organizations. Its list of services for locating executives includes conducting “in-depth interviews with professional and personal references and/or conduct background checks to obtain additional information regarding their qualifications.”

Phone messages and emails Wednesday from the Rafu to Johnston and Company were unreturned as of press time.

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  1. Talk of hakujin and white face sounds like bigotry to me. Sure, they could have hired a crooked JA…….no wait, they don’t exist, right Yoshinaga-san.

    Methinks the Association has egg on their face for their own lack of due diligence.

  2. Since the consultant firm of Johnston and Company did not conduct their search with due diligence, they should either be sued or have them returned their consulting fee to JACC with an apology. Also, I also agree why a white face to represent JACC. Is it because the board has such a colonial mentality that only a white person could do the job? Shame on them for being fooled by both Willis and the consulting firm.

  3. Thank goodness for NCRR’s perseverance in following up on employee complaints. Willis’ actions remind me of Romney and Bain Capital’s money making schemes considered “legal” in the U.S.but in Willis’ case went awry because French employees sued. Those corporate actions were recognized as criminal.

  4. Why a “hakujin” to run a Japanese community facility was hired in the first place?
    There are a lot of qualified JAs that should have been considered for the post.