Nacasa & Partners

Working place of Fumio Takashima / BALS
-first Asia, then the World-
Fumio Takashima
President and CEO, BALS Corporation

“The boss belongs on site”

So asserts Fumio Takashima, President and CEO of BALS Corporation.

The “site” is the factories and stores where the home/interior products, furniture, and other odds and ends handled by BALS are made and sold. For Takashima, looking at this “site” from a purely Japanese perspective isn’t good enough. He considers all of Asia as his site and is going further into the future by jumping into Asia and then onward to Western countries.

While sitting in the BALS Honk Kong office overlooking Hong Kong’s skyscrapers and the redevelopment of the old Kai Tak Airport, Takashima spoke about the current situation in Asia, the current ways of running a company, the current status of himself, and his future.(July 2011)

01. Shifting the Base from Tokyo to Hong Kong

02. Hong Kong’s Strong Base in Design
03. What is the Boss’s Job?
04. Planning a Weekend Holiday to Hachijo Island
05. The Ichiro of the Lifestyle World

PhotoFumio Takashima
President and CEO, BALS Corporation

Born in 1956 in Fukui Prefecture in central Japan, Takashima graduated from Kansai University with a degree in economics and entered Maluichi Selling Inc. In 1990, he founded BALS. Built around the shop Francfranc, BALS has developed home/interior shops like BALS TOKYO, J-PERIOD, About a girl, and WTW. In recent years, BALS is developing aggressively with large-scale roadside shops and overseas shops. His hobbies are doing triathlons and surfing. He has written the books “Things I Thought While Running Francfranc” (Keizaikai Co., Ltd.) and “Nobody Needs a CEO that Who Never Plays” (Diamond Inc.)

01. Shifting the Base from Tokyo to Hong Kong

PhotoIn recent years, Francfranc has been opening shop after shop in the Asian region. With currently 15 stores operating in Asian countries, Tokyo’s “Casually Stylish” spark is being ignited in Hong Kong, South Korea, China, and Taiwan. But it doesn’t stop with just opening stores in Asia. Since last year, Fumio Takashima, President and CEO of BALS, which Francfranc belongs to, has been gradually shifting to a daily life based in Honk Kong. Last May, he got an ID card identifying him as a resident of Hong Kong. Could this be the beginning of activities with a focus turned to Hong Kong/China and the rest of Asia?

The company originally entered Hong Kong eight years ago, in 2003. Francfranc’s first shop was opened in a building in Hong Kong’s main shopping area, Causeway Bay. That was our first overseas location, and the reason we chose Hong Kong was because in terms of its economic environment and culture we thought it was similar to Japan. We thought it would be a good sort of “practice” for opening overseas stores. It took five years to get the shop to make a profit, but we accumulated a lot of know-how and today we have a total of 15 stores: three in Shanghai, five in Hong Kong including BALS TOKYO and About a girl, four in Taiwan, and three in Seoul. It’s a cliché, but Hong Kong is just such a powerful city. It has more power than Japan, it really motivates you. It just feels good. The only drawback is that I can’t practice triathlon cycling, which I have been doing for about four years. It’s tough to cycle in Hong Kong without getting out of the city. It’s because I am in this kind of environment that I try to get back to Tokyo on the weekends as much as possible. (laughs) Tamagawa River is in the neighborhood, too, if you want to go for a jog, right?

go to TOP

02. Hong Kong’s Strong Base in Design
Francfranc procures a lot of its products from China, therefore, while in Hong Kong, frequent trips can be made to factories in Shenzhen and elsewhere in the Pearl River Delta area. While many tend to imagine southern China as a site for manufacturing, Takashima’s impression is that it is a site for design.

In 2007 the Hong Kong Design Institute, a school for design, opened a new campus. I have visited the campus before, and from what I heard, I realized that there are many cases where the school and companies develop products jointly on business basis. When a company uses a student’s design, the proper royalties are paid to the school. In a really organic way, they have constructed an environment for cooperation between academia and industry.

On that point, I feel like Japanese art universities don’t have as much of a business base as Hong Kong’s. Four years of education culminates with the graduation exhibition, and then it’s over. So how will producing works lead to business connections? It’s sad that there isn’t any education about how to bridge that gap.

From the beginning I was conscious of the idea that “Excellent designer is an excellent presenter.” BALS TOKYO and Francfranc’s interior design was done by Yasumichi Morita (Glamorous co., ltd.), who is a great sales representative, as well as a great designer. A Hong Kong-based designer, Alan Chan, is the same way. By the way, we hired two local designers to design the BALS Hong Kong office and they were both really fantastic.

Recently we have been doing shop and furniture design with Ryu Kosaka(Creative Director of A.N.D.). I am also interested in working with an American designer, Tony Chi, in having a hotel interior designer like him make some products for us. And I am looking forward to seeing what the young creators of Hong Kong will be able to do for us in the future.

go to TOP

03. What is the Boss’s Job?
Takashima originally worked for a furniture manufacturer. His creed is to be “Ultra On-Site.”In terms of a site, he says that setting up Hong Kong as a hub that will open up Asia is just the natural way things are flowing.

We set up Hong Kong as a base because the majority of our procurement comes from China and elsewhere in Asia. Our production site is Asia. With Hong Kong as our hub, it’s easy to access Vietnam, India, and mainland China, so it’s extremely convenient.

Photo I am always thinking about what a company president’s job is. Looking at accounting, he’s in charge of handling money, or regarding design, he’s in charge of making things. That’s pretty straightforward. But, after really contemplating this, I arrived at the conclusion that the president’s job is to be on site. For our sale of products, factories are “upstream,” near the source, and the stores are “downstream.” So, in that way, it made sense to make Hong Kong our center of operations, to be “upstream” near our factories, and it’s also certainly the base from where things can flow “downstream” to our stores throughout Asia and Japan.

If BALS was a fashion brand, then I think it would be okay to let local young people handle things. However, for interior goods, having only young people can be difficult because they don’t have so much life experience, few young people fully understand things about furniture, like sewing and other details. That’s a reason why I think the president still belongs on site.

I originally worked for a furniture manufacturer, so I am so interested in the factories. I can’t help myself. Supposing there was a complaint about a product we made, I would check that product over and over. Without looking at the production lines to check where the weak points are, you can’t understand the underlying problem.

go to TOP

04. Planning a Weekend Holiday to Hachijo Island
With his personal passion for the triathlon, Takashima established the company Athlonia in 2008 to invigorate competition among triathletes. At the moment, his attention has dramatically turned to a small island 285 kilometers south of Tokyo, Hachijo Island.

My personal interest outside of my company is to build a space that you can reach easily from Tokyo where you can get your fill of slow-paced, island living. When you mention an island vacation in Japan, everyone thinks of Okinawa, but it takes four to five hours before you arrive at your hotel. On the other hand, it’s just 50 minutes to Hachijo Island from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. And, just by coincidence, I own land on the island, so I thought, “Let’s do it there.”

PhotoYou can leave from Haneda on Friday night or Saturday morning and then hang out after you arrive and catch up on your reading or watch some DVDs that you’ve been wanting to see. The primary theme is to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and have a weekend away from ordinary life. I want to build a hotel to provide that kind of enjoyment. You can get local vegetables and fish on the island, there is even some cattle. There are lush forests and the volcanic island has a lot of stone buildings. I want to build a place where time goes by slowly with the theme of local production for local consumption. Of course, I guess I should just leave the operational details to Yutaka Noda (Plan Do See Inc.), how’s that sound? (laughs)

go to TOP

05. Planning a Weekend Holiday to Hachijo Island
Previously, Takashima announced that he would step back from the front lines of the business when he turned 56 years old. With one year left, how does he feel about that now?

When I said that, I had an image of the completed shape I wanted things to be in by age 56, but I have already achieve that. As for what to do now, since beginning to transfer our hub to Hong Kong last year, the ideal of that completed shape has been upgraded to a higher level. When I start thinking about that, I realize that I cannot quit until I have achieved this new goal. Before it was ok to just think about Japan, but now we are taking on global development. Production and sales does not end just with Asia. I have realized that it is possible to expand worldwide. Lately, I have been thinking it would be interesting to open a WTW location on Hong Kong’s Star Street in Wanchai. I am also thinking of entering America.

photo And recently, I have been thinking that maybe we could develop kiosk-style stores in train stations. I am aiming for 1,000 stores in Japan and 50 to 100 stores in Hong Kong. The demand for products varies according to the characteristics of the location and the time of day, so we are planning to introduce a system in which products can be easily switched in the morning and evening. We are also thinking of building Francfranc shops, which have up until now been aimed at single working women in their mid-20s, that have a slightly more grown up taste.

When Ichiro gets a hit, Japan gets excited and people feel proud to be Japanese. My real desire is inspire that kind of feeling, to open up a different path to overseas advancement that provides Japanese people with an environment where they can look to the future with high hopes.

go to TOP

Written by Hiroki Yanagisawa (freelance writer)
Interview and editing by Nobuko Ohara (Nacasa & Partners Inc.)