Yoshiharu Fukuhara, a renaissance man of Japanese beauty, made Shiseido into a major player on the world stage by marrying the cultural wellspring of the east and the dynamism of the west.
This story first appeared in the December 14, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“He made the corporation global, says Leonard A. Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. “He led his company in very strategic arrangements and alignments. He was the most visionary of all the Japanese business. leaders”
Back in the early Nineties, Lauder used to say that he viewed the worldwide business as a three-dimensional chess match between himself, L’Oréal’s Lindsay Owen-Jones and Fukuhara. He recalled once having lunch with Owen-Jones during that period and telling his L’Oréal rival, “Don’t think we are the only competitors.”
Fukuhara, the 81-year-old grandson of Shiseido’s founder, led the company’s international expansion, starting in the Sixties and through the Nineties. As the first U.S. manager in 1966, head of international in 1978, and later as president, chief executive officer and chairman, Fukuhara raised Shiseido’s flag in America and Western Europe, found the Paris-based fragrance company, Beauté Prestige International, acquired Carita and became one of the first foreign cosmetics companies to enter China.
“He drove Shiseido into the world,” says Shiseido Co. Ltd.’s corporate executive officer Carsten Fischer. The company’s total sales for 2011 were estimated at $8.53 billion, according to WWD Beauty Inc’s top 100 global ranking. But that is only the quantitative side of the story. Fukuhara also made a qualitative impact by “instilling the sense of design, the sense of culture, back to the company,” Fischer adds. One of Fukuhara’s key moves was to hire the avant-garde artist Serge Lutens in 1980 to create a highly refined modern image for the company.
The Shiseido that Fukuhara joined in 1953 was not an outward-looking company. During his initial job interview, the then president, Noboru Matsumoto, told the young Fukuhara that he wouldn’t find much use at Shiseido for his proficiency in English. As he rose through the ranks, Fukuhara realized that it was up to his generation to globalize the company that is now celebrating its 140th anniversary.
A humble man, Fukuhara saw himself as a runner in a relay team rather than as the heroic marathon runner. He was suddenly thrust into the presidency of Shiseido, following the unexpected death of Yoshio Ohno in July 1987. Fukuhara resigned exactly 10 years later—believing that a leader can lose clarity and judgment if he holds power for a protracted period of time—and stepped up to chairman. He finally retired from active service as honorary chairman in 2001.
But he is far from forgotten. Fischer says he still consults Fukuhara on matters of corporate culture because “he personifies it so well.”
Hisayuki Suekawa, the current president and ceo, agrees: “Mr. Fukuhara has always created new values for the company his family founded, by adding his own personal experience to the Shiseido DNA. I greatly admire the way he has consistently stewarded Shiseido’s unique essence and handed it down to future generations. For the sake of society, of Shiseido and of its employees, he inspires all who inherit this legacy to follow in his footsteps and continue to crate new values.”
Chantal Roos, the founding president of the BPI subsidiary, praises the magnitude of Fukuhara’s vision, the strength of his resolve and the depth of his humanity. The fact that a Japanese business leader wanted to create a perfume company, considering that fragrance was a negligible 2 to 3 percent of the Japanese beauty market, was remarkable. Roos recalls Fukuhara telling his managers that in order for the venture to work, shiseido had to locate the company in France, where the necessary expertise could be found. he not only put roos in charge but empow- ered her. when roos objected to managers’ demands that she allow local shiseido branches to distribute her new fragrances in foreign markets, Fukuhara stepped in and backed her up. “he knew i would have difficulties, so he put me on a level where they would have to talk to me equally,” roos recalls. one way Fukuhara did that was to present her with the prized camilla pin that sets the pecking order with- in the company; the color of the pin he chose for her denoted a high rank. he did this despite the fact that her company was still a start-up and not yet profitable. in the second year, she repaid his trust by breaking into the black. when she pointed this out, Fukuhara replied, “but it was not an obligation.”
Fukuhara was striking in his unusual degree of open-mindedness and his generosity of spirit, Ross recalls. “For a Japanese guy, he loved the fragrance environment— the emotional and the artistic side,” she says. “He is a supporter of art and culture.”
A thoughtful and reflective man, who has a well-known passion for raising orchids, Fukuhara once wrote that he decided against learning to play golf in his retirement because he would rather spend the time on more rewarding pursuits, like reading books.
“He is a very gentle person,” Fischer notes, adding that his powers of observation and analysis remain acute. “He is sharp,” Fischer says, “he raises the ceiling, you have to stretch higher—better not be satisfied with numbers. Quality comes first.”
How has the beauty business changed since you started your career?
The short answer is it has developed tremendously, and the development surpasses anything that I ever imagined. I joined Shiseido in 1953. It was only well after the war and people still were really basically just starving. Trying to get enough food to eat was a primary concern, and trying to survive and make a living was all people thought about.
I went to Keio University, where they had these guidance sessions with teachers and professors. They’d talk to you about what career path you’d choose. I remember that the professor who was in charge met me and said, “Where are you going to go to work?” I said, “Shiseido.” He shook his head and said, “Oh, you poor thing.”
Shiseido was notorious for being late in paying out salaries. There were also rumors that they skipped salaries. Whenever you saw the name mentioned in the newspapers, there’d be speculation about when they were going to start passing out bad bills or defaulting. But in 1953, things turned around. Shiseido actually decided to recruit seven university graduates. It was a very bold decision. The reason for that is that the president, Noboru Matsumoto, was a graduate of New York University; he’d majored in marketing and had some very clear ideas and visions about what management should be, how it should be pursued and also about career course. One of his firm convictions was that a company should always secure a certain pool of talent, a core personnel, who would continue to guide it in the future. He argued that this was necessary for transmitting the tradition and the corporate spirit.
That was a very important first lesson, because it taught me what, exactly, it is when you talk about decision making on the management level and scale.
In Japan, the custom is to have a written examination and interviews, including an interview with the president himself. I had the interview with Mr. Matsumoto, who looked at me and said, “You seem to have some English. I should warn you, you’re not going to use that when you come into this company.” I was wondering what on earth he was saying, but of course you don’t talk back to the president.
He was more interested in whether I had other skills, which he thought were more important, like riding a bicycle and being able to do the abacus. Then, 10 years after I had joined, they suddenly announced they were going to send a delegation to the United States. I was given the opportunity to take part, and so I spent about two months going all over the East and West coasts.
Three years after that, I was doing something totally different. Then I was contacted because Shiseido had set up a U.S. operation by that time, which was in serious difficulties. I was told that I was going to be made the first Shiseido U.S. president, and seeing as the U.S. operation was in such difficulty, I was told to get over there as soon as possible.
At one point, I seriously thought it would be better for everybody concerned if I just set the company out of its misery. However, all the things I’d been doing actually came together and bore fruit in the best possible way. Department stores, all those people I had contacted, gave us tremendous support. I was able to put the company in order and get the situation rectified, and then I was able to hand it over to my successor.
The moral to this story is that the president, Mr. Matsumoto—the graduate of New York University, cosmopolitan, international outlook, very, very well informed about the world and the United States—even he was not able to see 10 years into the future. That’s a tremendous development.
Looking at the beauty industry as a whole today, it’s changed so dramatically compared with when I entered this field. The way in which it’s sold and the categorization is so much more diverse than it used to be. On the one hand, you have the high-end consulting. Then you have the very competitively priced self-selection type, drug-store-type products. You also have other channels, like catalogues and Internet sales.
With these developments, you have incredible convenience. Quality is outstanding. There is tremendous diversity of product, and at the same time, people have really started to explore the issues of what exactly is beauty, what is true richness in every sense of the word and what exactly do you place value in. Until about the Eighties, there was a tremendous pursuit of ultimate quality and also individuality. There has been such a shift in recent years. Now these people are interested in outstanding quality, but they are not so much into pursuing the ultimate. They are really looking at the balancing-out point, where you get a good balance between outstanding quality and something which is also competitively priced. So you want to have quality, which is also available and accessible.
There’s going to be something interesting happening in the future. I sense that it’s going to be something which is going to be further developed than what we see right now, where we’ve got this ultimate situation where you’ve got outstanding quality and something which is also accessible and relatively attainable.
What kind of qualities and skills and abilities does a leader need today compared to then?
There has been a tendency, particularly over the past 100 years, for greater and greater degrees of specialization, and specialization in a very narrow and specific set of skills. Most business people specialize in very narrowly defined fields, and the best way for them to gain rewards and promotion has been to enhance their skills in their specific skill set. That creates some problems.
For top-level management, you need that plus the holistic view. You need to be able to take the overall vision. You also need to be able to carry out optimization with a balanced view of the overall situation. In addition, you need to have that something extra, that strong pull of personality.
The problem is that nowadays experts simply don’t have the time to be able to apply those skills at the same time as applying their expertise. When I was starting out, companies like Shiseido would recruit people who were specialists in specific fields and then they would rotate them around a series of different job descrip- tions, which was a way for them to become generalists with broad-based experience. that meant that you were at times asked to do something that you felt wasn’t really you, that you weren’t intuitively able to do, but it was something that you had learned and acquired, and it became part of you and your skills and your knowledge.
I don’t think we can afford that luxury nowadays, which means that experts tend to focus on their specific strengths and skills—and just that—and they don’t broaden their experience, which is creating some problems.
Because of the time pressure or the pressure of achieving results immediately?
Yes. The turnaround time is so short. You have to have immediate results. otherwise, you’re out the door.
Also—it might sound counterintuitive—but when a person is assigned to a job which is difficult, for the company as a whole, it isn’t optimal. But for that particular individual, having that experience is broadening and helps that person to grow.
I am the 10th person to serve as president of Shiseido. Mr. Suekawa, the current president, is 14th. When you look back at the Shiseido presidents, there has been this interesting tendency, people with a finance background are appointed to the post, and then research or science, and then sales and marketing, almost like taking turns.
It’s been interesting to see how they’ve been able to balance out and adjust the direction of the company, and successively made minute adjustments to the direction of the company. However, today, people’s focus is so highly specialized, it might not necessarily be in the best interest of a company for people who come from totally different backgrounds to take over the direction as a whole and serve as president. You have to be able to believe in the importance of human resource development, of training and education, of enhancing people’s abilities. You also have to be able to focus on the business and on the spirit and the desire of the individual to continue to learn and improve and better himself or herself.
That is ultimately the important test. You have to have people who really want to learn, to grow and to be able to understand more. At Shiseido, when people make it to the middle management, we have opportunities for them to take leadership courses, like the Aspen Institute. We believe it’s important to not just focus on business but also on the growth of the individual as a person and as a human being.
You became president five months after becoming a vice president, because of the untimely death of Mr. Ohno. Did you feel prepared? I read that you weren’t comfortable with the idea of the presidency to begin with, because it was too authoritarian. How did you compensate for the suddenness and turn the position into one of true leadership?
Mr. Ohno was an incredible person, very vibrant, very lively. I thought that my role was simply to support him, to act as a sounding board for him to bounce ideas off. When necessary, I would just calm him down and tell him to wait for a moment. I saw that relationship continuing, because i knew Mr. Ohno, even after president, was going to be chairman, and that I was going to be able to continue to support him in every way possible. and until both of us retired from our positions, I felt that we’d continue to work together in that way, and I would continue to support him.
I think Mr. Ohno also trusted me in that way, but as you know, it was so sudden. He was supposed to go in for a health checkup, and then he ended up in hospital, and he never came out again. My first response was total panic.
At the same time, I felt that it didn’t automatically mean just because a person is vice president you are going to become president. But then Masahiko Sannomiya, who came over to see me the day after Mr. Ohno died, told me that the advisers had met together and decided that i was going to be the next president.
Well, I thought, I had all the ideas that I had been presenting to Mr. Ohno anyway when i gave him advice, and my thoughts about what the company should be doing and what would improve the company, so I would translate that into my own actions.
At the same time, I was wondering whether I was going to be able to do the job of president, because I knew I wasn’t the sort of charismatic, outgoing person that Mr. Ohno had been. I knew that I didn’t have that sort of flamboyance. I decided that rather than wondering about whether I was going to be capable of doing the job, i should actually try to change to be capable of doing the job. So I really transformed myself in that sense. One of the things we say in Tokyo is that there are the yamanote people. Yamanote is like the very comfortably off, upper-middle-class people. They live quietly, it’s a very pleasant life. At the same time, you don’t stand out.
I decided I should change from that. Although I didn’t really like to give interviews in the beginning, I decided that if anybody offered to interview me, I’d accept any offer. I decided to set an example and to go out and to make myself known.
People tend to think, how can i fulfill this job? It isn’t that. Whatever happens to you, something which is fated, it happens to you like something which is decreed by the heavens. Accept that as your destiny and think, how can i transform myself so that i can become worthy and capable of doing this?
I have a collection of things that I said when I was president, and one is that you think about your old self, then you think about everything that you’ve learned through the years, and you take all of that knowledge and use that as the axis around which to build the new self. You retransform yourself based on what you’ve acquired through the years.
Another thing that I said was what motivates people isn’t logic, and it isn’t reason. It’s emotions. You have to grab their hearts and minds.
Did your ideas combined with Mr. Ohno’s knit together into a single vision as to what Shiseido had to do?
The vision was to think about what would allow Shiseido to become a beauty company that could continue to serve the world’s societies in every measurable way by providing beautiful things and experiences. Beauty in all forms is our business.
Your family has a very deep history of appreciation of the arts. How are the arts and business linked? Must a businessman have an artistic side?
Yes, absolutely. It’s not just the art, it’s the arts and culture in general. For our family, it’s always been natural to think of the arts and business being intimately connected and intertwined. It’s all part of the same continuum. We tried to realize and actualize what values we discover and search for in the arts through business. I’m also very interested in plants. That has also been a part of my interest, to think about how human beings can get together and realize themselves through contact with nature.
Why are you so interested in orchids in particular?
That’s sheer coincidence. For me, any plant is interesting and rewarding. It’s just my father was an orchid grower, and after he passed away, I had all these orchids thatI inherited. I have been taking care of them ever since.
If you hadn’t gone into business, would you have been something else?
I had many, many different opportunities. I could have pursued medicine, and become an academic. I was interested in heredity. Botany was also interesting. Photography is another interest. I had all these chances, and I happened to take the entrance examination and decided to join Shiseido, which has been very rewarding in the sense that i have been always fed with new opportunities that continue to feed my interests and expand my knowledge and my experience. I’ve been able to use my skills and my ability to the utmost, which has been very rewarding and fulfilling.
What accomplishments are you the most proud of in your time at Shiseido?
Being able to make the company into a global organization, which can be traced back to the prewar Shiseido. Even before the war, Shiseido had to become international. Otherwise, it was just going to be a local company of ours. There was that desire, which of course, because of the war and various other things, didn’t happen. But there was that basic drive to become international, and I was able to do that during my tenure.
In your book, you write that it was felt that the point of entry in the West for Shiseido would be France. Why?
It was a very personal belief. The reason for that was because Shiseido in the Thirties was heavily influenced by Art Deco. It was a defining element of the Shiseido aesthetic.
Art Deco is actually a reimport of a style which was fertilized by Chinese and Japanese elements and matured in Europe and was imported back to Japan, where it was further embraced.
I felt it was only natural, because we are half French in that sense, for us to get back to our roots, and that we become more sophisticated and experienced by doing business there. The problem was that France in those days was pretty closed.
Wondering how to get a foothold, and by sheer coincidence, I discovered Pierre Fabre, the pharmaceuticals company, was looking for a partner in the cosmetics field. Mr. Ohno was able to negotiate with their man, and we decided to set up joint ventures, Pierre Fabre in France and us in Japan.
Everything came together in the best possible way, because I was able to go to Au Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, and while I was doing the rounds at department stores, we came into contact with Serge lutens.
Another thing is that timewise, [fashion designers] Hanae Mori, Issey Miyake
And Kenzo had really arrived in France immediately before the events that i’m talking about. I thought that the French must be looking for something which comes from the orient—they might not be aware of it, but they are definitely looking for it.
I met with Maïmé Arnodin Fayolle, who is a famous colorist and a good friend of Issey Miyake, and she said that i was right. So I felt that there was going to be something for us.
What was it about Serge Lutens that captivated you?
Serge Lutens worked at Dior for about 12 years, and he was really, really successful. Dior wanted to keep him, but the problem was that Dior wanted the same Lutens that they had seen for the past 12 years or so, which of course for a creator was absolute death, because a creator wants a change. Dior did not want change.
Serge Lutens decided to leave Dior and he was wondering about which cosmetics company to team up with and Maïmé would say things like, “the colors that Serge creates, they could go from Paris and spread over the entire world.”
Apparently, Serge at the time was thinking about Asia as the coming region, and he was interested in tying up with an Asian company. Because of sheer coincidence, we met, and the moment we met, we knew that this was somebody who could understand me, and the feeling was mutual. There’s no way to explain it. It just happened. We spent about an hour and a half talking about various things. Serge is heavily into astrology, and he asked me for my sign. I said Pisces, the fish, and he said, “What’s your birthday?” I said, “the 14th of March,” and he said, “that’s the same for me.” We just hit it off from the first meeting.
We thought Lutens, if possible, would be the person who could guide us for our global face and image. Lutens said, “I know that you don’t have that much of a budget. Give me the opportunity, and I will promise you to give the customers an experience that will shock them, perhaps, and that they’ll never forget.” And he said, “in 10 years time, I’m going to make your presence felt, and I’m going to
enhance your standing in this market.” He actually did that in five years.
Did the globalization go as far as you’d wanted? You not only planted the company in Europe and the United States, but also in China.
China wasn’t a market that we thought of as an international market, because they’re Asians. We’re sort of linked. We first went into China in the early Seventies. I was head of the international department, and in those days, we were bleeding money—we were losing about one billion yen per annum and that meant that if we continued to lose money at the same rate every year for 10 years that would be 10 billion yen.
The planning people who were in charge of the overall business direction of the company had told us, “no new markets, because you’re going to be losing money anyway.” That happened to be the time when we heard rumors that the Beijing city government apparently was saying, “L’oréal came calling, P&G came calling, the Avon people came and nobody from Japan? What about Shiseido?” We thought we might as well go and have a look.
Remember—we’re not going to go there to do business. We’re just going to see what was going on and what it was like. After pulling various strings, we managed to get into contact with somebody from city government—specifically, the light industry as opposed to the heavy industry department, and somebody really, really low in the organization’s structure.
They said we cannot get you a hotel room, but we can offer you accommodation if you come. Apparently, cosmetics wasn’t good enough for the Beijing hotel— that’s the top hotel that they had in those days and was reserved for vips, national dignitaries and really, really important people from important, serious industries. Nobody from cosmetics merited that sort of treatment.
We went, and we discovered. We had rooms in a facility which was for minority ethnic groups. There were no locks on the doors, and we had meetings for the entire day. Of course, after you have meetings, you go out and see the market to see what’s going on. We went to department stores that were full of young people from the people’s liberation army, who were doing some final shopping in the fancy Beijing department store to take back home to their families.
What they were doing in those days was selling face cream. It was being sold from dispensers, and they would measure it and hand it out in plastic bags.
Of course, we weren’t in a position to be able to think about doing anything on a major scale, but we said, “We do feel that we could help to enhance your standard of living.” When we became important in the chinese market, it wasn’t really a business decision. It was more out of a humanitarian sense of trying to do what would be good to help these people enjoy a better standard of living.
This was still during the Mao Tsetung era, so the emphasis was on heavy industries. They had all the capital injection and all the support. The light industry department of the Beijing city was in a quandary. They weren’t allowed to do anything, they weren’t given any support. We were talking on the same wavelength. We both thought it was scandalous—the standard of living in China—and we should work together to enhance their lot. We ended up shaking hands and agreeing that we were going to do our best for the people.
The Chinese are people who have long memories, and they remembered what i said. The people I had come into contact with back in the Seventies became important in their organizations. I was also moving through the organization at the same time, and we had this sense of trust and really bonding together. That was something I’d never actually calculated or looked for.
Now Shiseido has probably the greatest penetration in China of the major cosmetics companies.
Trust. Because they trust us. Because back in those days, in the Seventies, they didn’t understand what distribution was. They didn’t understand the concept of having a distributor going around and doing collections afterwards. We taught them everything.
Speaking of globalization, are there markets that need to be further penetrated?
Russia is important for us right now. We’ve started getting on board seriously with India.
How did you arrive at the idea to step down as president after 10 years?
I had always thought that being president is like running and taking part in a relay.It’s not like a marathon—you’re not supposed to run the entire distance yourself. You are given responsibility for a certain set distance and you do your best for that distance. I thought that four or six years would be a nice period, but for various reasons, I ended up serving 10 years. one of our prime ministers at the time, Morihiro Hosokawa, wrote a book whose title was taken from an old Korean proverb which roughly means: 10 years and power corrupts. That spoke to me. We also had all these bad examples—you know the pattern; Japanese company, very strong, capable person comes into power and stays there forever. They tend to have authoritarian ways. That has been a recipe for disaster in many cases.
With all the decisions that you’ve made, are there any that you’d like to rethink?
No, because i don’t have any regrets. I gave the best possible decision under the circumstances imaginable at any given point in time. And I’m the same person. I can’t exceed my abilities, and I can’t magically regrow another capability.
I read that someone suggested you take up golf, and you thought about it and decided you had better things to do, like read. What are your favorite books?
Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. Leadership is an Art, by Max Depree. That’s been almost like the bible for me. I read it seriously, religiously. I’ve also read a lot of Peter Drucker. Concept of the Corporation has been very important.
In 2000, you gave a speech at the WWD Beauty CEO Summit in which you predicted that we were going to enter an era where wisdom and culture would meet. Do you think that is happening or could still happen?
It’s gone beyond anything that I imagined. An important element has been the advance and the penetration of information technology and all the possibilities that this has opened up. Because of the tremendous progress and sophistication of information and information technology, we now see the merging of wisdom, knowledge, and culture and the arts together to an unprecedented and also unimaginable level, which has also been creating stresses on the part of the users and the consumers. Because we haven’t been able to adapt to the quickness and the pace of the changes.
You could say, in effect, that what we have now is a structure that scatters knowledge and information around indiscriminately almost, and that has, in a curious way, been working against culture and also morals or ethics. We need to work on those aspects to really try to regain our humanity and what it means to be human.
In 1996, you talked about getting Shiseido ready for the challenges of digital marketing. What is the next frontier that the company has to get ready for?
Iit’s something which applies not just for companies. It also applies for nations, for communities, for anything which involves human beings. The phrase that I like is human values. If you’re talking about a company, it’s being able to address and also respect and respond to the values which are important for the customers and your clients.
Fabrizio Freda of Estée Lauder talks a lot about high-touch selling techniques. You’ve talked about the work of Desmond Morris and the bond between a chimpanzee and a child, which you described as skin sense.
It will always be a part of what we try to do when we interact with customers. Desmond Morris just happens to be one illustration. It’s important for us to interact with the customer, to speak with the customer and come into contact with the customer, including touching. We’ve been able to establish that at a very high level, in a very sophisticated way, particularly in the high end of the market. The phrase which current shiseido management uses is omotenashi. It means welcoming or making welcome, hospitality. However, in most cases, it’s understood as an extension or variation of service. True omotenashi is anticipating what the customer is looking for and delivering that. It might involve skin touch, but the ultimate aim is to be able to deliver what the customer’s deepest wishes are.
Has the country and the business recovered from last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami?
It had a major impact on us, both physically and mentally.
However, the actual physical impact and the damage was quite limited when you analyze it. It has probably had a greater and more lasting impact on us psychologically speaking, about how we consider our lifestyles, how we think about the way we should be living and our everyday behavior. In very simple terms, it means moving away from consumerism and thinking about well-being and what makes you feel truly enriched. It’s, in a sense, just rectifying things and going back to what should be normal.
When you talked about leadership, I was struck by your statement about how the president’s role is to fight with the bureaucracy. What do you consider to be a true test of leadership?
One other thing I achieved in terms of leadership was to dismantle the hierarchy within the corporation. It also explains the reason why we are able to work for so long and so productively with people like Serge Lutens and Chantal Roos, because we were able to provide that setting and give free rein to their talents. That’s part of the mentality of this company. Even if I’m no longer there on an everyday basis, the company itself hasn’t changed. The air is still like that.
How do you show leadership, then?
It’s also a reflection of leadership in contemporary terms. It’s no longer true that you need to have one outstanding and powerful person being the single leader. In my book, I describe outstanding leadership as consisting of a multitude of leaders permeating the entire organization. Thirty years ago, when you thought of leadership, you’d probably think of it in terms of power, about hierarchy, a very strong will and a statement of will and intent. Today’s leaders are more a combination of information, intelligence, wisdom and a very strong sense of a purpose or a mission, some overreaching goal that you are trying to fulfill or achieve.
Is your particular brand of leadership to develop these people who can step in and carry the company forward?
That’s why the Aspen Institute is one example of what I think to be important, because it allows people to hone their skills and their abilities in that direction, in terms of leadership while they continue to work. It’s important that you have these opportunities for people to be able to feel that there is a strong connection between themselves, their lives, their lifestyles, how they live and also society, that sense of being intertwined.
In terms of your other great accomplishment, the globalization of Shiseido, what was the biggest obstacle?
It depends on the country. They are all so different. The most important thing—and what was really brought home to me every time—was it’s so difficult to really understand the people who live in those markets.
The globalization that you began has now flowered into many parts. You have BPI in Paris, you have Nars, which is French-American, you have Bare Escentuals, which is American. Shiseido has become a global player based in Japan, and therefore representing Asia among the global players. Do you think that is enough or would you like to see it become more international in its image?
That’s going to be happening; we’re probably going to see the company become even more international, which is in line with the basic values of Shiseido, which is grounded in a liberal sensibility. It’s also grounded in holding dear multiple values. The multiplicity of values is very important for us.
It ties in with orchids. When people grow orchids, they tend to talk about a human being looking after the orchid, which is why you worry about an orchid and water it—you assume that the orchid needs water. The basic thing is that you forget about all that and just assume who happens to be in the same space. That you are living together with the orchid, It happens that the orchid, which is quite hardy and very much capable of fighting on its own, needs some additional help from time to time, because it doesn’t get any rain. So it just needs a tiny amount of help, and you give it that help and don’t have to fuss over it too much.
The same thing applies to companies. If you have subsidiaries, rather than fussing over them, it makes a much healthier situation if you simply assume that you’re going to be living together and you try to provide what is necessary at the right time and in the right way.
That’s what happened with BPI and with Nars. In the early days, there were issues that we needed to work on, where both sides needed to work hard. Once you get past that stage, things become so much easier because you’re just living together and you’re coexisting. The same applies for our relationship with the customers, because it’s no longer a situation where companies are going to be leading the customers. It’s a situation where we’re talking about living together with the customers, enjoying ourselves together with the customers and growing and achieving higher levels together with the customers.
Shiseido is renowned for its research and development. In the last 20 years, you’ve become very international in terms of marketing. Have the advancements in marketing kept pace with the advancements in R&D?
Marketing is something where there’s a limit to how much you can do on your own, because the social conditions, the constraints, the specific characteristics of a market, all those are a part of the complex factors which come into play.
Just to take one example, there is such a tremendous difference, depending on whether you have stand-alone stores or in-store stores. Despite that complexity, we have been able to make some major advances in marketing over the same time period.
In your book, The Journey, you portray yourself as Shiseido’s storyteller. It’s important to have a storyteller in the corporation to pass on its values. In that role, what would you tell young people coming into the business now?
Storytelling is an integral part of the organization. When people join the company, there is a very strong message. We also have “refreshing our memories” periods, where we have sessions, which are usually carried out after five-year intervals, where the message is shared once again. My role nowadays is more about talking to people outside of the organization as a storyteller.
What do you tell young people today that they need to do and need to know in order to succeed in their lives?
I talk about what happened to me, how I came to join the company, what sort of life I’ve had, what sort of work I’ve done. It’s really talking about plural values. I share what happened to me as a case study. Another quote in that book is the objective of a human being is not to enter a company—you join a company, you find a profession, you work at it. The important thing is to continue to learn and grow and improve yourself, to become a better human being and to contribute in that way. The emphasis is in how. It is a process of enriching and educating yourself. The company is not the end-all and be-all.
What vision does the company need to go forward and how does it differ from the vision you had when you took over?
The biggest difference is that we’ve been able to go back to our roots. when I joined, it was a point when we had had to give up that dream of being international. In that sense, we’ve been able to achieve that dream of becoming global.
The other thing when we think about the future is to be aware of the tremendous impact that Shiseido now has on the society at large, because we have been able to grow to that level. One example is to be aware of the implications of how we can help to interact with society and with people. Take the concept of successful aging, which i dreamt up when i was in my 60s. It’s one of the key things that I proposed when I was working as the president.
I said it was rather peculiar that when we thought about the mature market that you just associated them with pharmaceutical companies. I argued that there must be something that we could do to help to enrich their lives and lifestyles as a cosmetics company. We were able to do that with R&D and our products. As we move ahead, that’s going to be a key aspect of what we need to be aware of and mindful of.
Since you have thought so much in your life about the culture, the company and the history, if the founder were to come back today, Arinobu Fukuhara, what do you think his reaction would be to how the company has grown?
He’d probably be very surprised, but he would probably also ask us why on earth aren’t you more involved in pharmaceuticals, because he was a chemist to start off with. Our origins were to provide medicines, which would help people to become healthy and treat diseases. Nowadays, we are involved more with the beauty business, of helping people to realize their beauty. We do have both aspects, but perhaps we should have grown both aspects better, to be more balanced.
Why did the company pick beauty over pharmaceuticals?
That was the second president. I suppose it was to a great degree ascribable to the fact that he was very civilized. He was highly cultured, very talented in that direction, which probably was a major factor.
It made me think about my grandfather. Because if he were to suddenly appear and look at me and say, “Where on earth is the prescription chemist, where is the drug store where they write out prescriptions?” I’m going to have a tough time explaining things. [Laughs]
Moving on to the scope of the entire industry, there has been a drive for companies to acquire more new customers. P&G and L’Oréal have declared that they want to add a billion new customers. What does the indus- try need to extend its reach to become more relevant and meaningful in the lives of more people?
It’s far more important to focus on the actual nature of the connection that cosmetics and beauty care can have with the customer. It’s more a matter of the quality of the relationship rather than talking about sheer numbers.
Cosmetics are there to provide a way for becoming more beautiful. It should be intriguing to explore ways in which we can make this relationship richer and more intimate in the sense of becoming closer to the emotional level or the mental level of the customer.
I don’t know what it’s going to be like. It might be through developments as we understand more about the brain and how it functions, or the emotional aspect of how we connect to people or to other things. I have the feeling that we actually do have the keys in our hands, only we’re not quite aware of what key fits where.
There is so much more potential for us to be able to do more for the customer in that sense, rather than talking about just surface relationship.
Is there one thing you learned in your career?
I was really active in recruiting women and trying to give them equal opportunities. It’s just natural when you think about the situation in humanistic, liberal terms. I always find it interesting how you have these men who usually say women lack this quality so they are not appropriate for doing this or that. So you say, right, are you saying all men have these qualities? What about you? Then they usually tend to shut up. It’s important to remember that it’s about the individual, not the gender.
How would you like to be remembered?
One thing I’ve said is I don’t want people to remember my name, I just want them to remember what I did.