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Sunday, June 4, 2006

New BOOKOFF chief started at the bottom

From a 600 yen part-time job, Hashimoto's rise parallels that of the chain's

Staff writer

Mayumi Hashimoto's childhood dream was just to become a good mother.

News photo
Mayumi Hashimoto, set to be the next president of BOOKOFF Corp., gives a recent interview at the firm's office in Tokyo's Ginza district.

But while the media may dub her a Cinderella, most of her colleagues see it as a matter of course that Hashimoto, once a part-timer earning 600 yen an hour at BOOKOFF Corp., will become its president later this month.

"I got tired of watching the gossip news on TV," she told The Japan Times in an interview Friday. "I thought I'd go earn some extra money for my children's education."

That was her first motive to apply for a job at BOOKOFF's sole shop in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, in April 1990. The firm has since become the operator of Japan's largest chain of used books and commodities.

Then 41 years old and married with two teenage daughters, Hashimoto was an ordinary housewife who asked to work "flexible hours only between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and never on weekends."

But before she knew it, she became so involved in her work that instead of returning home at 4 p.m. like she had told her family, she started to get home sometimes at 4 a.m. the following day.

It was the refreshing feeling of "being treated as an individual" that got her so hooked on the job.

"It was the first time in a long time that I was called by my own name, not 'Mrs. Hashimoto' or 'So-and-so's mother.' It was so exciting," said Hashimoto, now 57.

She said her career was only made possible by the presence of 66-year-old Takashi Sakamoto, BOOKOFF's current president, who becomes chairman when she takes over his post on June 24.

Although her main task initially was to polish the edges of used books with sandpaper, Sakamoto spotted her dedication and quality as a leader — taking the initiative to implement new ideas like acquiring quality used books by picking them up at seller's homes instead of waiting for them to be brought to the shops, BOOKOFF officials said.

In January 1991, Hashimoto was appointed manager of BOOKOFF's second outlet while still working part time — a rarity in Japan, where such employees rarely are given any authority.

Since then, her career has skyrocketed.

After being asked to become a full-time employee in August that year, she was appointed to the board in 1994. But even after becoming managing director in 2003, she still serves customers a few times a week in one of BOOKOFF's many outlets.

Indeed, Hashimoto and Sakamoto in tandem raised the chain from that single shop in Sagamihara to 988 shops, including franchises, as of the end of April. There are even eight overseas — in Hawaii, New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Vancouver.

But despite her outstanding success, Hashimoto still maintains the down-to-earth attitude that has won the love and respect of her staff.

"She sometimes just pops in our store, puts on her apron and starts dismantling a used baby bed for display," said Sumiko Ohara, a 53-year-old part-timer at BOOKOFF's Oimachi shop in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo. "It's a good example that perseverance will accomplish all things. We are glad her efforts have been rewarded."

Hashimoto's initial target as president is to boost the firm's ratio of pretax profit to sales, which stood at 7 percent in March 2006 — 2.9 billion yen in pretax profit to 42.2 billion yen in sales — to 10 percent by March 2009.

But it hasn't been smooth sailing all the way.

Hashimoto said she could not help crying when a shop she managed was on the verge of closure due to poor sales.

"It was the evening before New Year's Eve, and as a housewife, I felt desperate to run to a supermarket and prepare the season's fare for my in-laws," she recalled. "But I had just heard my store would close if sales didn't recover. I went out the back door and wept."

At that time, the store only had part-time workers she thought were unmotivated, just waiting for work to end so they could go hit a pachinko parlor, she said.

"But when they spotted me crying, they said, 'Go home, we'll take care of it.' "

The staff did everything to turn the shop around, and it became profitable after a month.

This is when Hashimoto realized how important it is to nurture the staff and promised herself to make BOOKOFF a company where each employee can keep growing, giving them authority and a chance to learn — a point she also inherited from Sakamoto.

But her career, while impressive, wasn't warmly received by her family — initially.

"At first, I tried to do everything (at home), like cleaning, cooking, making lunch boxes for everyone and seeing them off," she said. "But at one stage I collapsed and couldn't keep up.

"My family first complained, saying 'What's more important — us or your work?' "

But as her work intensified, she and her husband realized they often faced similar woes, like how to motivate young people to work.

"We became like fellow soldiers — for the first time, it felt like we were equal partners," she said.

As a former housewife who just enjoyed seeing her children do well at school and her husband being promoted, she never imagined reaching her current position, and she has this piece of advice for other Japanese housewives:

"Age and gender don't matter. There are different possibilities and different chances in this world. Dare to take the plunge and see for yourself."

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The Japan Times

Article 6 of 8 in National news

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