Business Longevity – Learning from a 500 Year Old Client
In today’s world where we seem to be overcrowded by serial entrepreneurs and business advisers constantly talking about exit strategies, some even before businesses have begun, it’s refreshing to work with a business more concerned with the love of and continuation of their craft rather then making a quick buck.
Travelling across the outskirts of rural Kyoto, my business partner and I were invited to meet with the oldest tea company in Japan to discuss marketing and international trade. We arrived at a humble shop and tea house that has been present on the same street for the past 500 years and within the same family. We were greeted by the whole family, firstly by the youngest son, then the older sister and mother etc… The warmth we felt, even as outsiders was overwhelming, meeting their family/team was a little like being warmly welcomed into a family.
Business relationships are quite different in Japan from the U.K. There’s a huge emphasis on understanding a client’s personality, likes and ‘feeling’ about the world, gut instinct is paramount. Meetings are generally very lengthy, most of ours were around 3 hours with lots of tea drinking and the sharing of food. Businesses take much more time to make decisions about their investments but when they invest, it’s for life. Relationships are everything and for our new client this was even more true. They wanted us firstly to try their products which we already knew were excellent but they still needed to see us experience and enjoy the fruits of their labour. This was carried out in a small informal ceremony. They also shared their history, values and even allowed us to use traditional equipment to make our own matcha which we consumed later that afternoon. Here’s a picture of their first ancestor that originally started the company next to his very great grandson, ‘I have no idea how much greats I’d have to write.
I was in awe for the entire meeting and wanted to learn as much as I could about how they had survived for so long. If there was ever an example of a successful company it’s them, they’re older than America and there clients have included royalty throughout the ages. I wanted to understand the principles behind their longevity. After hours of talks and drinking more tea than a human should, I saw 7 key principles or approaches that I believe have supported their business’s longevity. This is what I learned.
- Be Driven by the Craft not the Capital – They’ve never cared about making millions and instead always put the product first. Their products are just as affordable to the general public today as are they have been to the Shogun and international royalty. Just because celebrities buy their products doesn’t mean they raise prices.
- Take Time over your Production Process – They have, over the centuries perfected their processes enabling them to produce greater quantities without losing the quality. Every element of the production is meticulously inspected and questioned, ‘can we do this better?’ Even still today. The process isn’t fast but speed isn’t the goal. Producing something great, of value, is the objective.
- Emotional Investment – They love their product so much but still consistently ask for approval from new customers. They’ve never become complacent. I find their production process to be like that of an artist. A piece of art is never truly finished and neither should be your business processes.
- Team – They’ve kept their business in the same family for countless generations and you can tell how much each family member loves what they do. Having a strong team that puts their all into the continued success of a business will inevitably breed continued success. I noticed that everyone also shared each other’s tasks, no one was above anyone else when it came down to the work. Leadership by doing rather than just giving orders. The way we should all lead.
- Never Neglect your Core Customers – They’ve looked after their core customers’ families for generations breeding unparalleled loyalty. They understand that without the ‘bread and butter clients’ there would be no business.
- Treat every Customer like they’re your Favourite Celebrity – The customer service was unparalleled, even though they’re our client, no expense was spared and they made every effort to demonstrate how much they care about how we perceive their products. From deep bows, to invitations to try everything and get involved in the production, they wanted us to feel invested and we do.
- Softly, Softly – For the first time in their half a millennia history they’ve decided to sell on large scale into Europe and we were the company they chose to work with. This has been predicated on many factors including us having strong bases in the U.K and Japan, our understanding of both languages and cultures but also in our approach of establishing a relationship first and foremost on trust and respect. They never hard sell and neither do we. ‘Softly, softly’, is a phrase I heard quite often from business owners talking about business growth in Japan. They tend not to worry whether someone decides to be a customer today because ‘Ashita ga Arusa’ There’s always tomorrow!
Japan has more companies over 100 years old than any other country on Earth so I believe that we can learn a lot from their business practices. If you’re looking to make a quick buck then this isn’t the place for you but if you’re interested in establishing a business that will stand the test of time Japan is the place to start.
(Global Managing Director)