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Monday, Nov. 23, 1998

Frozen pizza entrepreneur opens doors for female execs


22nd in a series of occasional articles about venture businesses

Staff writer

When Merle Aiko Okawara started her frozen pizza business some 30 years ago, few Japanese households had ovens to cook frozen food.

Okawara, president of JC Foods Co., went ahead with her plan to launch her business in Japan anyway, even though many people told her it would never succeed.

Marketing experts told Okawara, a Japanese-American educated in the United States and Switzerland, that Japanese housewives work in the home all day and their only pleasure in life is going shopping for evening meals. Others said elderly people would hesitate to eat cheese -- the main ingredient in pizza -- because of its smell. "You face a lot of problems, but you have to take each problem and break it down. I enjoy problem-solving," she said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Her positive attitude helped her overcome a seemingly endless stream of problems, and now her company has grown into a major frozen food manufacturer, with consolidated sales of about 16 billion yen. The firm made its debut on the over-the-counter stock market in 1992.

In addition to pizza, JC Foods has recently expanded into international foods, selling pita bread and "nan" Indian bread, to supermarkets and various restaurants.

Okawara said JC Foods was established by her father and his friend in California as a joint venture in 1964. But business proved tough for the company, and when her father planned to close the venture only two years later, Okawara, who was just out of college and had no work experience, begged her father to let her run the firm.

Recalling her company's early days, she said, "The biggest problem was that Japanese homes had no ovens." She tried many different ways to cook pizza without an oven. First, she put the pizza in a frying pan, but the crust burned and the cheese did not melt. Then she tried putting a lid on the frying pan, and the cheese melted, but the bottom still burned, she said.

Finally, she crumpled tin foil and placed it at the bottom of a frying pan, put the pizza on top and covered the pan with a lid. The unorthodox technique worked, and she printed the instructions on the package.

Besides difficulties with the product itself, she said she also had four strikes against her when she started the business -- being young, a foreigner, a woman and lacking fluency in Japanese. Because of these four disadvantages, she also lacked credibility and people's trust.

As is typical with venture firms, she struggled to raise enough money to keep her company in business and had a hard time maintaining capable employees because few people wanted to work for a small startup company, she said. "One day, I got a call from the Marunouchi police station and they said, 'You have to move your truck. It's in the middle of traffic.' So, I rushed down," she said.

There she discovered her company's truck, the back loaded high with frozen pizzas, parked on the side of a very busy street without a driver. "The driver just quit and he didn't even have the courtesy to let me know," she said.

When faced with such hurdles, she remembered the "can do" philosophy that her father taught her and her brothers, she said. "He always told us when we faced some difficulty in school, just think to yourself, 'can do,' 'can do,'" she said.

"He did not expect us to be the best, but he wanted us to try our best," she said, adding that because of his advice, she always had confidence.



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The Japan Times

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