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Sanrio: a place I’d like to work February 13, 2012

Posted by ayasawada in Japan.
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Shintaro Tsuji

Shintaro Tsuji

I don’t usually expect to see Hello Kitty in the Financial Times, but as one of the most successful product lines of modern times, it wasn’t that much of a surprise. What did surprise me about the interview with Sanrio Chief Exec Shintaro Tsuji was how great the company sounds.

I have to admit, I’ve always been both charmed by Hello Kitty and a little sneery at the endless line of mass-produced character goods. Kitty is omnipresent (some may say omnipotent) and there’s almost nothing you can buy without Kitty on it, as Hello Kitty Hell will attest. I always saw Sanrio as the embodiment of the money-grabbing Japanese business spirit. But this interview changed all that. 

Why? First, the company is barely makes a profit. The FT interview explains that for 2012 Sanrio “forecasts an operating profit of Y6.1bn on revenues of Y69bn: the margins of a manufacturer”.

Second is the reason for that. Sanrio is bleeding money on its two theme parks Puroland and Harmonyland. An indulgence you might think. Why not just cut your losses? Is it just pride? Yes and no.

[Tsuji] will not simply close Puroland and Harmonyland because, in his words, “profit is not about money”. Whereas many companies talk about putting the customer first and actually favour their shareholders, at Sanrio the order is different.

“Our staff are most important, next are all our partner manufacturers, then the customers who buy our products, then shareholders: that is the order,” Mr Tsuji says.

He also shows his disdain for those whose priority is wealth rather than what their company does. “I don’t take a gigantic salary like American financiers because it’s better for everyone to be friends”.

Of course, he could just be saying this for the Western media. And as the journalist notes, even if he does genuinely believe in it, his shareholders can’t be too happy. Yet, I can’t help but admire a man who quit a secure job in his early 30s to follow his dream:
“I wanted to think of a business that would promote friendship. That led to the idea of a gifts business – gifts make people happy.”
He describes Kitty-chan as both the product and the symbol of this, the ethos epitomised by her three characteristics:
“The first is kawaii [cuteness] so she is loved by everyone. The second is her ribbon – a ribbon is something that joins people together, so it means friendship. The third is that Kitty-chan has no mouth – she has to take your hand and help you. Cuteness, friendship, helping each other: that is Kitty’s message.”
Sanrio is keeping itself stable by wisely investing in copyrights for other characters, most recently the Mr Men. But Tsuji is 82 and having led the company for 50 years, one can’t help but fear for his ethos when he can no longer continue.
But his vision is the kind of place I want to work: Staff first, partners second, customers third, shareholders last. A business to promote friendship and gifts to make people happy.
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