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Everything’s connected

Features, Management, Perspective | December 1, 2014 | By:

Mr. Sadao Izumi moves the tent industry forward—by keeping the big picture in mind.

“There are two Japanese characters that make up the word ‘manage’—and these characters represent how interdependent the process of running a business is,” says Mr. Sadao Izumi, owner and president of Izumi Co. Ltd., Toyoma, Japan, and chairman of the Japan Tent Sheet Manufacturers Association. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s as if one character is the warp and the other is the weft. If one is severed, the textile is compromised. It is the same for managing a business—or the industry. If one part is not going well, it affects the rest of us.”

Mr. Izumi took over the family tent rental business in 1989, when he was 25. He worked for three years at a tent materials supplier vendor before taking over Izumi Co. Ltd. “I took over the company my father ran because that was what was expected,” he says. “The way I learned how to be in charge was by trial and error. My failures were my training.”

From foundation to risk

There were two things Mr. Izumi did when he took over his father’s company. The first was to introduce 15 minutes of informal calisthenics at the beginning of the day for employees. Known as “radio exercise,” the practice is embraced by many companies in Japan. Music is played on the radio and employees participate in physical exercise. “It is common sense in a way,” Mr. Izumi says. “I believe it promotes motivation—but [he laughs] I don’t think the employees like it very much.”

The second thing Mr. Izumi tackled was structure for the company. He created titles and job descriptions for his employees so responsibilities were clarified. “I didn’t feel the company was functioning properly as an organization,” he says. “Organizing it was my mission.”

After establishing a basic structure for the business, Mr. Izumi began addressing how to expand and strengthen his company, and that meant risk. He examined what types of services his company typically provided, and explored how he could expand on those services. He looked at how his company could provide tenting for Shinto festivals—religious community-oriented festivals throughout the year that often required tents. Historically, his company and other tent rental companies only rented tents to clients. Mr. Izumi proposed providing full-service rental for the event.

“Everyone was against this idea at first,” he says. “But I consulted the priests to see what they needed and how we could help them promote the event, and as a result we started setting up the tents and taking care of other details for them. It took several years for us to show a profit, but the clients loved it and eventually it worked.”

That risk-taking approach to business—which also later included innovating snow-melt systems for roofs in snow-laden areas of Japan and developing body harness systems to safely lift victims from mountainside accidents—in many ways prepared Mr. Izumi to become chairman of the Japan Tent Sheet Manufacturers Association. The experiences enabled him to address timely issues for tent manufacturers and the broader issues for Japan and tent manufacturers.

The power of association

Tent manufacturing in Japan has experienced a decline in recent years. Twenty years ago, Mr. Izumi says, there were 2,000 tent manufacturers in Japan. Now, there are 768. “Even though tent manufacturing is shrinking in Japan, I believe there is a future in this industry,” he says. “I’m passionate about the Tent Sheet Manufacturers Association. It connects the government and the manufacturers in a way that makes our industry incredibly strong.”

The connection between the government and the manufacturers in Japan may be the key to tent industry health for the country—and a way for the tent industry to provide a much-needed service to Japanese people. “Three years ago when the big earthquake hit Japan, the Japanese government sent money to the tent industry,” Mr. Izumi says. “The government requested that we install tents for temporary structures. That situation is no surprise. Japan is bound to have natural disasters: earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and nuclear disasters—we have 19 nuclear power plants. Tents are the first things to be needed when these disasters happen.”

The government reached out to tent manufacturers to manufacture and store tents to prepare for natural disasters. “There have been requests from the Ministry of Education and Science, and Transportation and Construction to provide tent sheets in case of disaster,” Mr. Izumi says. “Our association is holding many meetings to teach manufacturers about temporary construction.”

A broader benefit

For Mr. Izumi, one strategy to engage tent sheet manufacturers in the association and the industry at large involves showing up to build an industry-wide identity—as opposed to individualistic businesses. “We need to improve the awareness of people in this industry,” Mr. Izumi says. “While of course your individual business is important, you have to be aware that the industry has to survive or your business will not be able to grow. You can’t only focus on being competitive.”

In the belief that the industry will benefit from the building of relationships, Mr. Izumi has made it his mission to visit as many tent rental companies as possible to talk to them personally. “I show up. Even if the president [of a company] is reluctant to meet me, I will go to their facilities,” Mr. Izumi says. “Even though they may not show up for hours, I sit and wait. The important thing is that I made a visit. It’s my action that is necessary—it is not the talking to them.”

Closer to home, the heart of Mr. Izumi’s business strategy is to provide results. Although he is regarded as being good at negotiations, the bottom line is what his company can deliver. “I don’t talk to people about the business,” Mr. Izumi says. “The purpose is not profit. Profit comes from results. If you prove yourself as trustworthy, the result is good.”

And that sentiment is true for his business and his approach to the industry.

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