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Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009
TAKING A CHANCE
Globe maker president on top of the world
Saddled with an ailing business, widow turned a manufacturer in Saitama Prefecture into the industry leader
Terrestrial globes of various sizes fill the third floor of Watanabe Kyogu Co., manufacturer of globes and astronomy education materials in Soka, Saitama Prefecture.
The space, which almost feels like a miniature galaxy, is a small museum located on the top floor of the firm's factory building.
"You can see it's actually not just a size difference. Some are colored to make it easier to identify certain countries, while others put more focus on the terrain," explained company President Miwako Watanabe, 60. "Interesting, isn't it?"
Observing how eagerly she explains the differences between the globes, one could easily mistake the company president for a teacher. But Watanabe is the woman behind the revival of this once-ailing firm, which is now the industry leader with annual sales of ¥139 million.
Some 20,000 globes are manufactured annually on the first floor of the building and shipped to customers across Japan.
When Watanabe took over in 1995, the firm had annual sales of ¥60 million and had been operating in the red for some time. She turned the company around in just two years.
Watanabe credits her success to a number of factors, such as changing business practices, revising costs and introducing new technology.
Watanabe was forced to take over as president after her husband, Hiroshi, died from stomach cancer. He was the third in a line of family members who had been marketing globes since 1937.
"When my husband fell ill, he told me that I was the only one to run it, because it was such a small firm," said Watanabe, who was busy raising their three sons while running an English conversation class at the time.
"I had to do it because I didn't know how I could close down a business, with all the many connections that were built up over the years. I'm sure (the customers) were worried about what I was going to do," she recalled.
Her sons were 18, 14 and 9 when their father passed away, and Watanabe said she felt she had to take charge until one of them was ready to take over the business.
The company's educational mission was another reason she felt it was important to continue, she said.
Because Watanabe's husband openly shared ideas and concerns about the business with her even before she got involved, she started the restructuring by fulfilling his wishes.
The first step was to change the makeup of the company. She hired a new tax accountant, and replaced employees over 65 years old. It wasn't an easy decision to make.
From there, Watanabe blazed her own trail and went out looking for customers, which the older workers had frowned upon.
"What was important for a turnaround was to go out to find new customers and try to make more profit, but they didn't really like the fact that I was bringing in new orders," she said.
She joined so-called globe fairs at department stores, which was something the firm had never before actively pursued.
"I found them to be very important opportunities to meet those who actually market our products to end-users, and we can directly introduce our globes to them," she said. "My husband was an engineer, so he probably didn't show interest."
Her aggressive sales activities paid off, and she was bringing in not just new orders but information to improve the quality of the products.
Among the significant business ties forged was one with Tokai University, which administers satellite data about the Earth.
With this detailed information, Watanabe's firm was able to start manufacturing various new kinds of globes including those showing the Earth at night, which by the way it depicts light on the surface reveals the economic activities in different regions.
It was this type that Environment Minister Ichiro Kamoshita presented as a gift to his counterparts at the G8 summit last year.
Introducing the latest technology to globe manufacturing is another important change of recent years, she said. In her third year at the helm, the firm started using a globe-manufacturing machine, which has allowed the company to handle bigger orders. As an added bonus, this freed up time to work on custom-made globes, which are mostly made by hand.
Watanabe takes pride in the accuracy of the firm's Earth data, which is updated every two years.
Even the choice of colors is of utmost importance. "I think the printing company we deal with was scared of me because I'm really demanding. But it's important to be particular about what you really want your product to be," she said. "A good globe is accurate and easy to understand."
A byproduct of running the company is that she has become interested in world affairs, she says, because geographical information tends to reflect the political situation of the times.
Each product is stamped with the year of manufacture to anchor it to a particular historical moment.
Still, the market for globes is rather static, as people generally do not own more than one, which they tend to keep for a long time.
In the 70-year history of the company, schools have remained the principal customers. But as the population shrinks and budgets for educational materials are cut, there doesn't appear to be much room for expanding the market, Watanabe said.
"Unfortunately, there's still a lack of teachers who can utilize globes (as a good teaching tool) in their classrooms," she said. "But they really don't have to know everything. They should just enjoy looking at it together."
Doing her part to bring out the fun in globes, five or six years ago Watanabe began visiting classrooms to show students how to make portable globes.
The museum on the top floor is another such effort that has won the support of local children and their parents.
These activities appear to reflect where the firm wants to go from here.
"It's really not so much about expanding our business. I want to maintain our quality and our profits, but most of all, I want to create an environment where our customers can enjoy our products," she said.
The ideal place for a globe at home is in the living room, Watanabe says.
"It would be best if our globe steers conversation between the children and parents, or with the guests. Then, it won't be just an item we're marketing."
In this occasional series, we interview entrepreneurs whose spirit may hold the key to a more competitive Japan.
Miwako Watanabe career highlights
1974-1995 — Marries Hiroshi Watanabe, third president of Watanabe Kyogu Co., and raises three sons while teaching children's English classes.
1995 — Watanabe becomes fourth president.
1997 — Succeeds in turning the company around.
1988 — Introduces a globe-manufacturing machine.
1999 — The firm is designated a "Factory of Saitama Prefecture" by the Saitama Prefectural Government.