“Just one outstanding person can change a company”. This philosophy is at the core of the services that Regions provide. Regions itself has also achieved grow by inviting “workers who exceed corporate power” into the company. But what do we mean by “workers who exceed corporate power”? How do they change a company? In this interview Sato, who is originally from a large auditing firm and has a CPA license, and Tsujii, who is originally from a multinational strategic consulting firm, talk about everything from why they left their stable positions to join Regions, to the value of their jobs, and their aims going into the future.
※Interview Date: 28th December 2017
Executive Officer Head of North Kanto Company
Joined November 2011
A CPA, after working for three years and seven months at an auditing firm he came to Hokkaido, a place he had no previous connection to. He covered the entirety of the managing department at the Hokkaido head office as well as providing career change support as a consult. He is currently the head of the North Kanto Company.
Executive Officer Head of Business Planning Career Consultant
Joined August 2013
A class-1 architect, he worked in product planning and project management at the real estate department of a large scale metal producer before moving to a multinational consulting firm. There he covered varies kinds of consulting as a strategy consultant. In 2013 he moved back to his hometown Sapporo and joined Regions.
Sato： I was born in Yokohama in Kanagawa prefecture. I went to school in the local area, and then moved on to Kanagawa University. It was the closest university to my house. In my third year at university I passed the CPA exam.
Tsujii： You were one of the youngest people to pass the exam in the history of CPAs in Japan, right?
Sato： I wasn’t the youngest but I was essentially the lowest university year. Once I had obtained the license I was able to work at an auditing firm whilst staying enrolled at university. Kind of like a part-time worker. At the time I was going to work at one of the big four auditing firms, but right at that time the company was in the middle of an accounting fraud related issue… But I thought that this situation might cause the company to change, and so decided to join, and started working there after graduating university. However, in the June of that year, three months after I had joined, the company dissolved. Afterwards I worked at the Kyoto Audit Corporation in their Tokyo office. Overall I worked at auditing firms for three years and seven months, including my time spent working while at university.
Tsujii： Why was it against that you wanted to become a CPA?
Sato： I had a tendency to rely on myself. However, I ended up enrolling in a university right by my house. I was a bit worried that at this rate I wouldn’t be able to find anything to prove my ability to myself, and so decided to try and become a CPA. The reason I chose a CPA is because my parents originally owned their own business, so I had some interest in business administration, and when I wondered what the peak license and job type in the field was, I thought of a CPA. You’re from Sapporo right Tsujii?
Tsujii： Yes, I was born in a hospital right round the corner from Regions. I went to an elementary and middle school that were attached to a national university in Hokkaido, and then went to Sapporo North High School. When I was a kid I wanted to become an architect, so I searched for a university with an architecture department, and without thinking much about it joined Hokkaido University, which was near my house. When I joined I thought I’d like to join a company where I could do architectural design, but during my time at university I changed my mind and decided I’d rather join a large-scale manufacturing firm than a design office. I therefore came to be quite interested in the architectural department of a large steel maker, and ended up working there for around eight years.
Sato： What kind of work did you do there?
Tsujii： Steel manufacturers own a vast amount of land. I was mainly working in the real estate department doing product planning and project advancement, such as application of the land and new land and buildings purchased, addition of value through developing the land, and sale of land and buildings. By the way, when I was 25 I got my class-1 architecture license, but I’m a bit of a novice when compared to you.
Sato： Did you have the option to go to university in Tokyo?
Tsujii： I did consider it, just not very much. The school fees were cheap, and as it was my hometown I’d have a lot of friends going, so I decided to go to Hokkaido University.
Sato： You lived by the moment huh.
Tsujii： Perhaps I still do now. After I had worked in Tokyo for eight years the Lehman Shock happened. The real estate department was withdrawn and merged with the parent company. At the time I thought that if I continued to work at a large company then I wouldn’t be able to grow as I had planned, and I also did not have any interest in jobs related to steel or engineering, so I decided to work in “an environment where I can improve myself”, and so joined the Boston Consulting Group – which seemed an extremely difficult environment – where I worked for just under three years.
Tsujii： By the way, how did you come to know about Regions after you quit your previous job?
Sato： I found it through Rikunabi Next.
Sato： The reason I decided to join is because I wanted to try something closer to management. I was satisfied with my job as a CPA, but after the financial year ended we only consulted about things that were already in the past to the client, and I didn’t really get much of a feeling that I was contributing to the company’s future. I realized that working at an auditing firm would not bring me on a quick path to my desire of working in something close to management.
Tsujii： Did you not have the option to start a business yourself?
Sato： I thought about it but didn’t do it. If I think about it now it was probably due to a lack of self-confidence. I didn’t have any management experience after all. As the auditing world is quite unique, I also didn’t have the confidence that I could get by when dealing with a normal company. As a result of all this, I decided to give up on starting my own business at that time.
Tsujii： And that’s why you were browsing Rikunabi Next. Why did you come to be interested in Regions?
Sato： In the vast array of advertisements there was just one extremely small company whose name I had never heard of. It was a company in Hokkaido with just two members, yet it was putting out an advert alongside a group of well-known companies. I thought that it seemed like quite an interesting company and so decided to apply.
Tsujii： If you put that in the context of your career up to then, it was quite an extreme decision. Did you have an interest in the contents of the business?
Sato： I don’t think that’s the case. As I had even wanted to start my own business, I was more interested in finding a company in the process of growing than in the business contents. I wanted to experience what it was like to make a company grow. I also had a desire to not work somewhere “normal”. Quitting an auditing firm and going to work in accounting at a listed company is just too much of a cliché. That’s why I went out of my way to choose a sales job at a startup company in Hokkaido.
Tsujii： That’s great, the fact you don’t want to be normal. It’s just like you. For me I am an only child and my parents live in Sapporo. They are getting on a bit, and so I thought that maybe I could fulfill my duty as a child if I lived close to them. When my first child was born I started to really understand how my parents felt, and there was even a case when one of them was hospitalized. As a result, I decided to return to Sapporo. And that is how I came to meet Regions. When I searched “Career change Sapporo” on Google it was about the fourth result from the top. I thought “what exactly is this company” and registered as a job seeker. That was at around the end of 2012 to the start of 2013.
Sato： Quite a rare choice as a new job after working at a multinational consulting firm, isn’t it?
Tsujii： That’s right. At the company I was working at the time the common routes for a post-consulting career where to work at a different company in the same industry, enter an executive position at a famous company, making a startup company, or becoming a university professor or public servant etc. Most of my coworkers at the time became senior management at famous companies, and manage several hundred people. In comparison at the time I joined there was only twelve people at Regions. I was often asked if something was wrong with me. I want to make this company one with societal value and, if possible, a famous company, and through societal contribution and increase in presence catch up to my former coworkers who had working at large firms. Part of the reason I joined is because I found that path interesting.
Sato： At the start you were registered with Regions as a job seeker. How did you end up working here?
Tsujii： The career consultant assigned to me at the time told me that there wasn’t a company in Sapporo which I would be satisfied at. So I looked around Regions’ website, and through that I found the CEO Takaoka’s blog. I did wonder why the CEO was only ever writing about ramen, but somewhere I felt that a company with a CEO like this must be interesting to work at.
Sato： You were pulled in by Takaoka’s charm?
Tsujii： Of course I found Takaoka himself interesting, but I realized that it was a company with that kind of person at the helm, with a lot of interesting and highly skilled people working there. I felt that I could perhaps do something interesting at this company, and perhaps might even be able to contribute to an economic breakthrough in Hokkaido. So I told the career consultant that I have an interest in Regions itself, and got them to interview me.
Sato： I met you for the first time at the third interview.
Tsujii： That’s right. It was around May 2013. At the time I hadn’t had any contact for three weeks, and had half-forgotten, and right when I was being treated at the dentist the phone rang, and on the other end Takaoka said “we’re thinking of making you an employee at our company”. I replied instantly saying that I would go there straight away. When did you join Sato?
Sato： I joined in November 2009, but the truth is that at the start I was told that I wouldn’t be hired.
Tsujii： Huh?! Really?!
Sato： I was told that “now is not the time”. Even though I was struggling with being unemployed. However a little later I got another message saying “Actually we’d like to hire you after all”.
Tsujii： ”After all”?
Sato： I found out about this later, but Unno, who was managing accounting at the time, fell pregnant. I was interested in sales work, but the discussion changed to me covering the entirety of the management department, including accounting, until she came back from maternity leave. I’d work in sales after she came back. I think that in Takaoka’s head that plan would be enough to make ends meet.
Tsujii： Did your motivation fall at all after you joined?
Sato： No, it didn’t. If I think about why it’s because there were a lot of changes, and I found the constantly changing situations to be quite interesting. When I was managing accounting the company looked like it was going to run out of funds, so I was thinking about what to do to solve it, and when the original accounting manager came back I finally got to do my desired job of sales. The company has also changed a lot since we expanded into Tohoku. In the midst of all this there was even a year where our total revenue quadrupled.
Tsujii： And since April 2012 you’ve been in Utsunomiya, right?
Sato： Yes. The company first expanded into Fukushima, but there was the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami disaster, so we moved to the surrounding prefectures of Miyagi and Tochigi, and supported Fukushima from there. As a result, we launched offices in Sendai and Utsunomiya. It was at that time that I moved from Sapporo to Utsunomiya. What was your experience like after joining Tsujii?
Tsujii： I was just a standard worker at the start. Making phone calls or sending out scouting emails, responding to them and carrying out interviews with candidates. I was 35 but still had no sales experience so in all honesty it was quite stressful. To take my mind off things I would download past results off the company’s database and analyze them. I wasn’t asked by anyone I just did it myself.
In my first year I couldn’t meet my sales targets, and in my second year I started to take on work that was outside my original job description in addition to sales. For example advice to try and improve the company. I also gave material for discussions and debates to the management board. However my main job was sales and career consulting. In order to be recognized in the company you have to leave sales results. So in my second year of 2014 I couldn’t reach my target figures, but I worked as much as I could anyway. Till around 1am every day. I think I’ve never worked more than that before or since. Days of falling asleep at the computer and then waking of holding it. And I’d like to add that I wasn’t being forced to do this, I did it because I wanted to.
Sato： For several days I kept receiving mail from you at weird times. You came here from a famous consulting firm, and even though you were working flat out in unfamiliar sales work, you couldn’t reach your target. Did you feel a lot of frustration from that?
Tsujii： I’d be lying if I said no but the reason I kept on nevertheless is because I’m a bit of a sore loser. In truth, it’s completely natural that I’d lose to my coworkers at Regions, all of whom were genuine experienced sales people. I had only just joined, and had never done sales before. However, I had a strong desire to somehow beat my former coworkers. The first step towards that would be to be recognized within this company. I thought of it as a three year plan, and from the second year I was able to achieve my sales goal.
Sato： Were you pleased that you reached your goal?
Tsujii： I wasn’t completely over the moon or anything. I’m often criticized by those around me for lacking emotion in my work. In 2016 I became the top salesman, and had the highest figures since establishment. However for me, it’s thanks to all the support I received from my sales assistants, or partners, within the company rather than my own work. This year I took part in commission work from the Hokkaido Prefectural Office, and helped setup the company’s HR system. You also took part in business succession issues from quite early on right?
Sato： Around 60~70% of CEOs of regional companies are over 70 years old. Every company is struggling with successor related issues. In around half of those cases the son of the CEO will become the successor, but for the remaining half there isn’t even a successor to being with. So I thought I could somehow help out by introducing suitable candidates. At the start I thought about linking up with an accounting office, and started going around the various offices in the region in my time managing accounting, but I didn’t get many cases through that route. Instead I found companies with these needs through normal sales work. I believe that Regions is good at not just finding successors, but also at finding people who can work as the right-hand man or advisor to successors, for example in cases where the CEO’s son inherits the company.
Tsujii： What kind of discussions did you have exactly?
Sato： Hmmm, one example would be a group company which operates in the southern part of Tochigi prefecture. The CEO is around 70, and the son – who is to be the successor – around 40. There was a case where I introduced a very experienced candidate in their late 50s to act as an intermediary to make business succession go smoother.
Tsujii： I have worked at management issues Regions itself has, such as designing an HR system, on top of normal sales work. At the start I was the coordinator of companywide training. All the employees got together and did things like holding study sessions or deciding themes then carrying out vital decision-making for the company. I also analyzed figures relating to management. I touched on it slightly before put we also got an order for consignment work from the Hokkaido Prefectural Office. It was a business sponsored by the prefecture aimed at those looking to move back to or move to Hokkaido. We also partnered up with the Hokkaido Newspaper Company, and through this Regions was able to raise its name value.
Sato： It seems that the theme of this discussion is that we two are “workers who exceed corporate power”, but what do you think about that Tsujii?
Tsujii： If you think about it objectively then don’t you think it’s correct? If you’re being honest why did you decide to join Regions Sato?
Sato： It was really just down to pure interest. I thought it seemed interesting.
Tsujii： For me too it was intuition. I thought that something seemed interesting. I reckon that even if I had gotten an offer from a company that was well known throughout Hokkaido I wouldn’t have gone. If that was the case I would just go to a large firm in Tokyo. I’m happy that at Regions I can challenge a number of different things.
Sato： Exactly. The value of working here is that you’re not caught up in all the restrictions that large companies tend to have, and have decision-making power. We can do this because while we do have both corporate culture and scale, we work close to the CEO Takaoka. If it’s a large company then you might have to go through two, three, or even four people, but it’s not like that here. Takaoka also wants you to give your opinion. Sometimes important decisions are made during drinking parties.
Tsujii： For me the most amazing part about you Sato is that you were able to set up the Utsunomiya office and set it on track. You moved to somewhere you had no relation with, and at the start it was only you. This year is the fifth year, and you’ve completely gotten rid of the accumulated debt up till then. I think it’s all down to the relationships of trust you’ve built up with your clients. You put a lot of time into making those. Also, during meetings of the decision-making board your statements are always calm and precise. You’ve got your head on straight. When Takaoka is troubled he always consults you first.
Sato： I don’t have much fluctuation of emotions. I don’t really get overly happy or sad. In contrast if I say my opinion about your contributions to the company, I would say the impact of the powerpoint documents you made at the start was huge. For example, what percentage of applicants actually join a new company through us etc. We had the data from the start, but you expressed that data that no one viewed in an easy to understand way.
Tsujii： In regards to the success rate, I also categorized and digitized it by gender and age etc.
Sato： We were able to create the company KPI from the digits you gave us. If we put it in extreme terms up until then our goal for reaching sales targets was to just try as hard as we could. Thanks to you the company finally understood what we should be focusing on. Due to this our productivity rose, and we were able to create some predictions for the future. This environment came about precisely because you entered the company.
Tsujii： I believe that it would have turned out that way anyway, but I may have contributed to speeding up the process.
Sato： I believe it had an effect on the speed of the company’s growth.
Tsujii： In the first two weeks after I had joined I still had a lot of free time… I just pulled a bunch of numbers and made some documents sort of as a hobby.
Tsujii： What do you think is the true value of working at Regions?
Sato： I’d say the fact I don’t get tired of it. There’s always something new going on, and I can become a key player in that. I can make changes. I have repeated that many times up till now. I probably will from here on too. So I can continue to work without getting tired, and it’s quite strimulating. There’s no strange rules either. I truly feel that I am contributing to the company’s growth. In both a good and a bad way my decision-making has a large effect on the entire company’s results. The Utsunomiya office has had several troubles up till now, so I want to raise profits and pay it back. What about you Tsujii?
Tsujii： The fact that if you feel that doing a certain thing might help the company to grow then they usually let you try it out. There are a lot of opportunities for both you and the company to take challenges. At my previous job there was a value of “the larger the numbers you deal with the larger your contribution to the company is”. For example reducing a five trillion yen company cost by three hundred billion yen. But Regions doesn’t share that value. You really feel like your building something. But I still feel that both my level of contribution and speediness is completely lacking. I can’t show my current state to the me who joined four and a half years ago.
Sato： The companywide theme for the next fiscal term is “innovation”. It’ll be a turning point that will change the entire business model, not trapped down and restricted by what has been seen as common sense over the past ten years. If in the two or three years from now our revenue was to raise five or even tenfold I wouldn’t be surprised. We are diving into a phase where we are once again building something new, and I want to proactively take part in that.
Tsujii： You’re right. The important thing is not the scale of the company but its presence. I want to become a company with an overwhelming presence in a specific region or field. For example, if you want to change careers to a regional area then “Regional Style”. I want us to become a company with an overwhelming name value and brand among people with those kinds of needs. I want to bring the company to that point as quick as possible.
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