Leaders Voice; Words to Inspire | Nikkei special edition

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Resilience in Crisis with Intuitive Approaches

Tomoaki Ota,
Johoku Chemical Co.,Ltd.

Thinking in Your Own Way

I was born in Tokyo in 1964. I could not speak any English when I went to a language school in the US at the age of 20. I subsequently completed undergraduate studies and went to a business school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. My experience of being Japanese and going to school overseas strongly influenced my business style. Before I went overseas, I saw things from only one angle. Now I know there are different worlds on earth, and I can see things from various perspectives, such as an American way and a Japanese way, or an old way and a new way. I tried to pool the best of all my experiences of businesses around the world and devise my own way of thinking.

I joined my father's company, Johoku Chemical, in 2000. One year later, my father passed away, so I became the president of the company. I think the job of a president is to solve problems and to define a target or direction. In that sense, running a company is like a marathon. It's not a 100-meter sprint in which you just have to deliver the best performance in a short period of time. It is a long-term challenge, so I have to set the right pace and conserve my energy. When problems come up, I need to tackle them.

Since I became president, there have been many challenges: 9/11, the dotcom bubble burst, the 2008 economic crisis, and the Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear power plant explosion, which took place just 70 km north of the company. Nevertheless, we have thrived for many years. One reason is that we do not rely on one or two items, but produce more than 150 items. Because of this vast variety of products, our sales are very stable. On the other hand, producing many items involves enormous costs, contrary to the principles of mass production. Luckily, we have high-value items that can compensate for the additional costs.

Luck is a key word when I think about how we have continued our operation. Unlike other chemical companies, which are close to logistics hubs such as ports, our factory is located inland. When the Tohoku earthquake happened in 2011, two neighboring towns were destroyed and people were killed, but we were unaffected by the tsunami because of the factory's location. Ultimately we suffered little impact even though it was a devastating catastrophe.

Tomoaki Ota(Johoku Chemical Co.,Ltd.)

Responsibility for Continuous Supply

In Japan, manufacturing corporations often say, "we have a responsibility to supply." This is a bit different from western companies, which just stop supplying when they run into trouble. Johoku Chemical also has a responsibility to keep supplying its products on a long-term basis. Therefore, I care about employees, because their health is directly linked to safe, continuous operation.

To make our employees feel happier, I started a monthly social gathering of all staff, including board members, where everyone can interact. In addition, we have a rest area with TVs and sofas as well as a golf area, where anyone can hit some balls and relax. Moreover, we provide free lunch and instant noodles every day. To mark our employees' birthdays, we give them 100 dollars and a charm from the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. I believe such thoughtful little efforts make a difference.

Tomoaki Ota(Johoku Chemical Co.,Ltd.)

Philosophies and Intuition

In 2016 I published a book entitled "The New-Era Entrepreneurial Leader – The Thoughts and Philosophies of One of Asia's Best, Brightest and Promising CEOs". This book is a kind of legacy for my two sons. Through the book, I would like to tell them that philosophies and intuition are two important keys to success. By learning philosophies, you can study thousands of years of civilization. Intuition is very important in noticing signs of crisis and making the right decisions. For example, to survive the 2008 economic crisis, you had to sense something was going wrong in 2007. Then you needed to prepare for the crisis without any textbook to guide you. Many companies fired their employees and could not restart business when the economy recovered. However, I reminded myself of Augustus Caesar's advice to "festina lente" (make haste slowly), and decided intuitively when to move quickly or be patient.

Our mission is to continue this operation, hopefully for generations, even if we have difficult times in the future. Because our products have a large global market share in high-tech industries, we do have a responsibility to supply them constantly.