Placing the Customer in the Driver’s Seat

Adding Japanese Touches to Western “Courtyard Culture” to Create New Value

Shigeru Aoi:There were a lot of reasons behind my decision to join A-TOM four years ago. The first and perhaps foremost was that my father wouldn’t be here today were it not for my grandfather [Chuji Aoi] who founded the Marui Group and that I wouldn’t be here without my father. It was literally in my genes to join the company. For the same reason, I felt that A-TOM was the company where I’d be able to use my skills to the fullest. A big turning point came in 2011, when I started taking part in the purchase of properties. From then on, my father and I began spending more time discussing the direction of our company, our management philosophies, the meaning of running a family business, and so on. These discussions spawned new ideas about how to drive the real estate business, and it was around three years ago that I started seeing things in a new light. Since then, I’ve enjoyed a very good working relationship with my father.
Chushiro Aoi:My son is 36 at the moment, which is a very good age. You still have a lot of youthful energy along with some experience. You’re able to pick things up quickly and aren’t shy about meeting new people and trying new things. I, too, was in my late thirties and mid-forties when I consolidated my work style, and I’ve been carrying on ever since, always looking straight ahead.
Shigeru:That was back when Japan was in the economic driver’s seat. It must have been a great time to be working. But we’re not a big company, and the way we work has changed a lot since the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, there was a formula for success, and given the strength of the economy, you could more or less ride on its coattails to grow your business. Those conditions don’t exist at present, so we all have to find our own approach and work style if we want to survive.
I’m curious as to what your father taught you in how to run a business.
Chushiro:People who’re successful don’t teach how they got that way. If you’re not willing to go along, then fine, they don’t need you, they’ll find someone else who will. That was pretty much it. Great businessmen are very straightforward. Aside from your grandfather, I had the privilege of being looked after by such great men as Konosuke Matsushita and Akio Morita, and they were the same way. I was able to meet a lot of people and learned a great deal. I gained experience in finance and also tried my hand at transport, advertising, travel, and insurance, among other things.
Shigeru:What did the founder have to say about starting new enterprises?
Chushiro: He always told me “Do what you want if that’s what circumstances demand. But never do anything just to satisfy your personal ambitions. You should listen to what the customers want, and put them in the driver’s seat.” He was very strict about that.
Shigeru:What was the most memorable business you were involved in?
Chushiro:It’s difficult to choose just one, but I was always happy marketing new products that became symbols of their time, the Sony Walkman, for example, or new cameras by Canon, Nikon, and so on. I was always happy being involved with something new, trusting your instincts to identify the best products and marketing them successfully. That was very appealing work.
Shigeru:How did you know what would sell and what wouldn’t?
Chushiro:To be honest, I had no clue. If I did, I’d be a lot richer now. [Laughs] I think the important thing is to be sensitive to the prevailing mood in society. That’s about it, really.
Shigeru:Is there anything the founder said that you remember particularly well?
Chushiro:He often used to say, “Don’t wait for business conditions to improve, go and make it better yourself.” Another thing he often said was, “If you think it’s going to fail, it will fail. If you think it’s going to succeed, it will.” People who go around thinking they’re just no good will never be happy. Stay positive, no matter how bad the situation looks, and always have a sense of gratitude toward those around you. This, I learned, is how you can improve business conditions all by yourself.
Shigeru:That’s very true.
Chushiro:One more thing I remember well was that he would always walk to his destination on his own. Instead of driving up to the door, he would get up early in the morning and reach there on his own two feet. He also always made a point of seeing things for himself, firsthand. This is something I’m always telling you: “When you’re going to see a piece of real estate, don’t drive there. Always get a feel for it by walking around the neighborhood.” You might have to climb a steep hill, or it might be far from the station. If it’s a seaside property, it will appear completely different depending on whether you see it at high tide or low tide.
Shigeru:Yes, I’m learning. When you have a good impression of a property, I can now sense that too. Being able to share our impressions is something I’m very happy about. We come from different generations, but we can agree and make decisions very quickly.
Chushiro:We might not able to spend the cash like our bigger competitors, but we work much quicker than anyone else. To make the best use of that speed, we don’t try to tackle everything in-house; we’re open to working with outside partners in order to push projects forward.
Shigeru:Many more people today are willing to leave big business behind and go it alone by forming their own companies, and we want to keep working with them in the future. That way, we can avail ourselves to a range of fresh ideas much more quickly and put together teams of specialists with the necessary skills from one project to the next. I think the Japanese market is becoming much more flexible in that sense. Looking at my friends overseas, I can see that they don’t derive their identity or sense of self-worth from the name of the company they’re working for but from what they’re actually doing and with whom. You’ve made me a representative director, but I have to warn you I don’t really care much for growing the size of this company.
Chushiro:There’s something more important than that.
Shigeru:Yes, I’m very interested in taking the values that have emerged from the Courtyard HIROO project and applying them to other projects. I think they’re just as applicable in other parts of the world as in Tokyo, so it would be great to connect with like-minded people in other countries. Such collaboration could engender a whole new range of values and lifestyles that can be shared globally. Some people may disagree with me, but I think the idea of trying to out-earn everybody else is becoming outdated. We need to find ways to live together more harmoniously, recognizing the need to share our precious resources.
Chushiro:The values today are very different from the days when I was young. Perhaps even bigger is the difference in the amount of information available. The challenge today is to be able to discern the information that’s truly valuable. I’m somewhat disturbed by the sight of everyone fiddling their smartphones these days, trying to keep up with streams of information. Is that really so important?
Shigeru: That said, it’s very difficult today to shut yourself off completely from the information that’s out there. So one of the goals with Courtyard HIROO that we’re discussing at the moment is to turn it into a place where you can “detox” from the smartphone addiction.
Chushiro:Success with Courtyard HIROO would certainly be a big boost for our confidence.
Shigeru:Up to now, all we were doing basically was to find good properties, loan them out, and collect the rent. That’s not a particularly creative challenge, but Courtyard HIROO is different. We’re attempting to add Eastern, Japanese touches to Western “courtyard culture.” What we’re marketing is a whole new set of values, and that’s a big challenge.
Chushiro:While “courtyard culture” has a Western look to it, it also has a rather long history in Japan. There are scenes in old movies of people stepping out of the back door to meet and communicate with neighbors, lending each other soy sauce, sharing rice, and so on. So it’s not just a Western thing. We want to attract people to Courtyard HIROO who are interested connecting with their neighbors. The building itself is very modern, but at the heart of the project is something very human. That’s what we’re hoping this project will come to represent.
Shigeru:The slogan we’ve come up is “A Future with a Tinge of Nostalgia.” Creating Courtyard HIROO goes far beyond the job of a conventional real estate agency. And we’re truly grateful that we have the chance to take on such a new challenge on our fifty-fifth anniversary.