The Young Vice President Breaking Down Barriers at a Centenarian Company in Japan, Silicon Valley Style
Hello! My name is Iwai and I am a writer at RECREW.
For our inaugural interview, we welcomed Mr. Shoichiro Watanabe, who recently became Vice President at a company that has 125 years of history. This interview series gives a spotlight to the company he runs, and to Mr. Watanabe himself and his unconventional career journey of starting out at an American startup company then joining a management team of a long-established company in Japan.
--- Thank you for your time.
Thank you for having me.
Timeless and Beloved Brand whose Colors Never Fade
--- To start off, could you give us an overview of the company and the types of businesses you do at Kindware co., ltd?
Sure. Kindware is a company that is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. Our vision is "Providing products (items, information, and services) that sparks joy in customers' hearts at first sight ". We have businesses in the field of tailoring, healthcare, logistics, and textile.
Our tailoring business manufactures and sells men's and women's formal wear and business wear. Specifically, we manufacture tailor-made suits and formal wear at a factory called Nasu Yume Kobo which is located in Nasu, Tochigi prefecture. Yume Kobo also undertakes the sewing of other famous apparel brands (whose names I won’t mention, but you all know).
For healthcare business, we have our brand KINDECARE. The concept for KINDECARE is multigenerational healthcare products. We develop, manufacture and supply products mainly to department stores. We also provide home-visit nursing care services.
--- I see. You are developing a wide range of businesses besides formal wear! What are your plans for the future?
Our plan for the current fiscal term is to strengthen and develop our core businesses, and to also cultivate new business opportunities that derive from our mainstream revenue sources. For example, we would like to try launching subscription services and to strengthen our ecommerce business.
--- It feels like a new phase for your company. Sounds exciting!
Starting Out a Career in American Startup Culture, then Thrown Back into Antiquated Japanese Work Norms
--- Next, I would like to ask you about your career. What are you working on right now?
I currently have two main roles. As a vice-president, I oversee a wide range of operations, from the strategy development of our entire company to personnel assignment and recruiting to creating the business framework with my team. In my other role as the head of the healthcare department, I have a responsibility to grow its business.
--- You were previously at an American startup company, correct?
That is correct. Previously, I was a manager of the Asia-Pacific region for an online travel agency startup called Viator. In fact, Kindware was the very first company I worked for after college. At Kindware, I did sales, retail salesperson, and business development. I entered the company because I was curious to learn more about my father's company. But I did not enjoy the work environment there, so eventually I left. Then, through serendipity I joined Hosei University Research Institute of California (HURIC) as a marketing researcher.
Fired!? Learning the Hard Way
That opportunity led me to move to Bay Area in San Francisco. Being surrounded by numerous startup companies, I was inspired by their work culture and wished to work for one. Through acquaintances, I got an offer to co-launch an IT hardware startup company. Soon, I was assigned as the Vice President in charge of global sales, and Director of Marketing.
The harsh reality was that I was technically fired and had to leave the company. Looking back, I believe that I was not committed enough to work for a startup company nor was equipped with sufficient skillsets to take on the tasks. I think I was too naive back then.
I struggled for a little over six months trying to figure out how to grow the business and increase the number of customers. Eventually, there was a bitter discussion with the president, and I was told I cannot stay with the company any longer.
Coincidentally, I was contacted by Viator via Linkedin asking if I would like to come in for a job interview which was for the position of a bilingual salesperson. Luckily, I got the job and I was soon put in charge of the Japan and Korea markets. Viator was later acquired by TripAdvisor, and I became their APAC manager. This career transition eventually led me back to Kindware co., ltd.
--- I think you had the option to stay. Why did you decide to return to Japan?
Yes, I could have chosen to stay. I was even offered an opportunity to be sponsored for a green card application. But it was the year I turned 30 which was a milestone and my father had been subtly persuading me to return, so it became a turning point for me. After all, I was born into this family-run company that has lasted for over 100 years, so it would have been a waste of opportunity not to take advantage of my background. At the same time, I was very comfortable with the working style in the United States and honestly was hesitant to work in Japan. But then I thought, this could be the perfect opportunity to change things around for the better and make positive contributions in Japan.
--- How has it been since you returned to Kindware?
The first impression I had upon my return was the lack of “speed” in our working environment. I really wanted to change that. So, I used the first six months to thoroughly observe and analyze the current situation, then spent another six months implementing necessary changes. Examples of improvements included introducing controlled flextime, allowing remote work, and installing a mini in-house convenience store in the office. We also adopted qualitative & quantitative evaluation sheets, one-on-one meetings, and installed tools such as Office365 and Skype.
--- Sounds like your experiences in the States are put to good use in these situations.
I agree. I believe I learned a lot working at the venture company in the United States. But coming back to Japan and having to work in a completely different environment, I am facing many challenges, and truly feel the need to learn and grow at a much faster pace.
Striving to Become The Legendary Venture Company
--- Please tell us about your vision.
For me, it is all about creating a "legendary venture company" that continues to take on risks and go above and beyond anyone's imagination, so much so that other companies look up to as a source of inspiration and a role model. I believe there are only a handful of companies that have existed for 100 years, much more 125 years, and we are envisioning to thrive for another 100 years. Our motivation is to keep on breaking conventional barriers and entering new grounds. In this process, I hope that our employees feel a deep sense of pride in all of the efforts they put into writing an exciting chapter of our abiding legacy.
--- The “Legendary Venture” company. That is a very interesting way to put it. I suppose it means maintaining some parts of traditions and cultivated techniques that derive from the long company history, while taking on some brand-new challenges?
Exactly. What’s interesting is that a lot of our new businesses have been created after the fourth generation became chairman. For example, he started the Healthcare & Care Division from ground up 25 years ago! It has since grown to become one of our core businesses and I look up to his great foresight!
We also had products with more far-fetched ideas, including soap to help eliminate aging body odor, developing chemical fibers, and even IoT-related health care products such as a cane that can be used in place of a guide dog!
As you can see, we have always had the venture-company spirit. But the downside of it is that many of our businesses are rather short lived. So once again, we want to dedicate our energy and efforts into strengthening and solidifying our core businesses, and simultaneously focus on developing new businesses that derive from them.
--- That being said, what kind of talent are you looking for?
Looking ahead, we definitely want people who are talented in the field of IT. I want to work with development engineers who are familiar with user interface (UI), user experience (UE) or similar fields. Strengthening our online services is a must. Meanwhile, if the team members have new project ideas or better solutions for our business and so on, I would embrace unique ideas and totally encourage them to go ahead and take initiatives to tackle challenges at hand.
We are also looking for talented retail salespersons to join our team. We are looking for people who have great customer service skills and pitching capabilities, who are also people-oriented and possess can-do-personality.
Selling luxury products to high-end customers require excellent customer services. We would love to hear from people who love socializing and communicating, who also genuinely find joy in helping others. If they have previous experience working in retail sales or part-time sales jobs, that's even better. As for all the required skillsets, our veteran staff will provide extensive coaching once joining our team.
As for the personality, we are looking for people who can potentially be leaders - someone who is motivated and outspoken, who can exchange opinions freely regardless of age etc.. Also, we want to work with someone who is not only passionate but committed to growing our company together, as if we are one big family. We constantly strive to providing ideal work environment at Kindware, where my employees are happy and feel that their lives are genuinely enriched by working with us.
--- Thank you very much for your time. I imagined a century-old-company would be more conservative. But I have come to think that Kindware is quite the opposite - the way the company carries itself, the way it continues to boldly embrace change and tackle brand new challenges are quite audacious, which embodies the spirit of a true venture company! If people are interested in talking to you, could they just meet you?
Sure! We can chat over a coffee or tea, to get to know each other!
--- Kindware co.,ltd. is hiring!