A strong vision
Japanese eyewear brand Owndays’ Group CEO Shuji Tanaka (pictured below) believes in leading with an iron fist, even if it means ruffling the feathers of some employees. And this was exactly what happened back in 2008, when Tanaka first acquired a 52% stake in the then-flagging business that he says was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Taking over as Group CEO that same year, he recognised the urgent need to clean out the entire organisation, and replace all of its existing systems and processes. He immediately began introducing a series of corporate reforms, where every function, including HR, was overhauled.
But despite his penchant for autocracy, he was also well aware of his own blind spots, and understood the importance of letting others have a voice in company matters.
He says it all comes down to timing.
This realisation was also what informed one of Tanaka’s earliest HR initiatives.
In 2010, Tanaka introduced annual store manager elections across all of Owndays’ outlets in Japan.
The elections are open to all interested full-time retail staff. Shortlisted employees then run their own campaigns and fight for votes from their co-workers to be elected as store managers.
This year, a group of around 30 finalists pleaded their cases to the staff they will eventually have to manage if the votes fall their way.
Besides Japan, the elections also take place in Owndays’ stores across Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan every year in March.
In Singapore, election victors are announced in March each year during the Owndays Summit, the company’s version of a dinner and dance party.
Tanaka says the initiative was introduced after internal complaints about his choices for store managers. He decided the best way forward was to empower store employees with a democratic selection process.
When the elections were first launched, there was a lot of resistance from both senior management and the retail division.
Tanaka recalls many directors told him the practice would be counter-effective.
“But I did it anyway because it’s not about their satisfaction or what they like. It’s more about them understanding and accepting this culture,” he says today.
The key, he adds, is not to implement one big change overnight, but gradually introduce one small change every day. That way, there is less stress when the real transformation happens because staff are already well-exposed to it.
Tanaka acknowledges there is some irony here. He admits he took a no-prisoners approach to the company’s path to democracy.
He was not concerned about the potential backlash regarding the elections because he says he knew that “eventually everyone will fall in place and embrace the concept.”
It appears that he was right. Elections are now very much a part of the Owndays culture, shares Owndays Singapore director Massa Mizoguchi, adding that this is now also true for the corporate departments.
Mizoguchi says the election culture is now so deeply ingrained across the organisation that if the boss appoints a new position, staff would feel “very weird” about it.
Store managers, once voted in, hold the post for a year. Even this duration was carefully calculated, says Tanaka.
He compares the scenario to that of a professional sports player who has signed a three-year contract.
“By the second and third years of their contract, they will start to get lazy. If it’s only for a year, they will remain more aggressive because they will work hard to be appointed into the same role again,” says Tanaka.
From opticians to managers
Two Singapore employees whose careers have progressed as a result of the store manager elections are west area manager Trevor Hwong, and store manager Lie Lyvern.
Both Hwong and Lie joined Owndays Singapore as store opticians in 2014, before taking part in the store manager elections in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Lie, who was successful in her first attempt at the elections last year, repeated the feat again this year.
“Being a manager at Owndays, I have had the opportunity to develop my management skills and I believe this will bring me to greater heights,” says Lie.
“This was why I joined Owndays, as I wanted to acquire more skills and develop my career in a growing company.”
Hwong was able to go one step further. He participated in a separate area manager election that takes place every September, and emerged with the highest number of votes for his district.
He is thankful to the company’s open election system, which he says gives “everyone a chance to move forward as long as they raise their hands”.
Hwong, whose goal as Owndays Singapore’s west area manager is “to create a better working environment for my colleagues... and keep operations running smoothly”, was put to the test in April this year, when two store employees were physically assaulted by a belligerent passerby.
The incident, which made headlines in Singapore, took place at around 10:00pm on a Monday night. At that time, Hwong was reportedly at dinner with friends when he received a phone call from one of the assaulted staff members.
Without hesitation, he rushed down to the shop and got on top of the situation. The two store staff were also given a few days off to recover from the incident.
Hwong said that both staff stayed calm throughout the trying incident, which was a testament of the company’s emphasis on service training and standards.
A religious experience
Indeed, at Owndays, every new hire will receive a “must-read” 71-page guidebook, titled Owndays by Owndays. Employees learn about the company’s brand philosophy, purpose, history, working culture ,and the Owndays service standard.
Tanaka refers to the handbook as a “bible” for all Owndays staff.
“This is why I sometimes liken the company to a religion, because I don’t localise my strategies,” says Tanaka.
Whether one agrees with Tanaka’s unusual approach or not, his methods have certainly paid off.
Less than ten years after the Owndays rebrand, the company has increased its revenue eight fold, from S$25million in 2008 to S$140million last year.
The company’s attrition rates have also fallen below 3% per annum, a long way from the massive 30% turnover when Tanaka first took over.
The full transformation also steadied the company’s performance, allowing it to venture out of Japan for the first time in 2013. Since then, it has established and grown its presence across ten countries, with 187 stores altogether.
In Singapore alone, the brand has 23 stores and counting.
These days, Owndays is well-known for how it has applied the private label business model into the optical sector. Private labels are sub-brands offered under an existing and bigger brand. In Owndays’ case, some of its key brandlines today include the AIR UItem lightweight range and the classic 1930s-inspired John Dillinger collection.
Tanaka says this is just the beginning, as there are bigger plans ahead. Owndays plans to enter India, Indonesia and even Russia.
“I often joke that there’s a market for us even in the galaxy,” he says.
Firm leadership for success
For all of the elections’ successes, Tanaka remains adamant that for a business to prosper, “democracy is not always ideal”. He believes his original tough stance on leading an organisation is still superior.
“To listen to everyone’s opinion harms you more than it helps,” he says. “All employees want to have a strong leader to lead them.”
He even compares Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.
He says that unlike Kim, who was blindly autocratic, Lee was firm but also enlightened. He listened to the people around him, and knew when he had to lead, and when to pull back.
Lee, indeed, has often been credited for the rapid transformation of Singapore into one of the world’s top economies.
Tanaka says he greatly admires that form of steely leadership style, an approach he hopes he has emulated well at Owndays.
“This is my management philosophy,” he says.
“If I think a plan will be good for employees and the business, then I will action it. The key is to execute.”