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Masamichi Toyama, Chairman, Smiles Co., Ltd.

If your job is what you love, you and the company can both be happy

Masamichi Toyama
Smiles Co., Ltd.

─ Tell us about your life at Keio.

I attended Keio from Yochisha Elementary School. I was a quiet child. I liked to do things in harmony rather than to be assertive, which really hasn't changed today. In Junior High School, groups start to form around you. Mainly, there were two groups, the "hard type"formed by tough guys and who stuck out in school, and the "soft type" formed mainly by students who belong to cultural clubs and who are modest and kind. I was able to get along well with both groups, going back and forth between the two, and although I wasn't aware at that time, I was acting like a bridge between the two groups. Today, I am in a similar position because I am kind of hybrid, connecting two positions such as "work and art" and "individuality and corporative power".

─ After graduating from the Faculty of Business and Commerce, you joined Mitsubishi Corporation. Did you have a career plan such as "This is what I want to do as a job."

Not at all. During my high school and college years, I just spent my days thinking "this is the best moment of my life". I think a lot of students in those days chose where to work for based on how famous or cool the company seemed to be, rather than with a motive of wanting to do something specific as a job. It was a time you could get away with it. To image the time, it was like floating on top of the economic growth of the whole nation.... In 1985, the year I graduated from Keio, we were still in that kind of atmosphere. A few years later, the bubble economy collapsed, and everything just stopped suddenly. After that, we were required to consider where to head for, and swim towards it with your own strength. Now in a difficult economic situation, I see young people are thinking seriously about their future careers from when they are students, and I admire them. Compared to our time, they are on the starting line of becoming a business person at an earlier stage, and in a way, I envy them. The time I actually came to the starting line was when I was 33 years old, when I held my first personal exhibition.

─ Is that the personal exhibition of your tile art which lead to starting your new business with "Soup StockTokyo"?

Yes, that's right. I liked drawing since I was a student, and I created 70 art pieces in a year from the time I decided I was going to hold a personal exhibition. I did this while I was a company employee, so I had to wake up early or spend my weekends to work on my art... it was really tough, but I spent really good quality time. I also noticed that if you are doing something that you really love to do, you can spare your sleep time to work on it. All of the 70 pieces were sold out, and I gained confidence. This experience was the starting point of launching "Soup StockTokyo", which was the first time I clearly showed my will to achieve something and this could have been the true starting line of my career.

─ Could you tell us about it in more detail?

When I was around 30 years old, I used to ask myself, "What am I" "Without the company name, what can I do as a single person?" When these questions suddenly came to me, I also felt a vague anxiety and impatience for my future. In those days, I used to hold a Christmas party at home, and a lot of the friends whom I used to invite to the party were creators who worked freelance. I aspired them for choosing something they love to do as a profession. Obviously, working freelance may involve difficulties that never apply to a company employee, and I know some people think that you should separate your enjoyment and your job. However, at the same time, I thought that it would be really nice if what you love to do also serve as the driving force for your job. Then I tried holding my personal exhibition, and found out that I had incredible passion and power within myself. It was like adrenaline kept flowing out, and I thought that if I could use this experience in my job, I will be happier and the company will be happier.... I felt that if you could create a business that combines "individuality and corporative power", in other words, passion and sensibility of an individual and social credibility and wide network of a corporation, it should be interesting and successful.

─ How did you image the business at first?

Doing business at a trading company is quite challenging because of the large caliber, but can be completely separate from the actual realities of your life. If I was going to launch a business, I wanted it to be closer to my everyday life with a little bit of a "hand made" feel. For example, food service. That is why I applied to go on a loan to Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan (KFC).


From wondering "why does it have to be like this?"to an idea of "low investment, high sensibility"

─ So while you were transferred to KFC, you came up with the idea of a soup restaurant?

Yes, I was assigned to a department in charge of starting up new business, but there were a lot of others who were better than me in coming up with new ideas for fried chicken. Therefore, I decided that my job should be to come up with an interesting idea other than fried chicken. I always had doubts for fast-food business and wondered "why does it have to be like this?". Not only the menu that seemed to be "cheaper, the better", but the brightly illuminated signs and interior design seemed to be made to show up itself, rather than for the customers. They don't look stylish, and don't really fit in with the atmosphere of the city. I thought it should look more plain. I came up with the keyword "low investment, high sensibility" and played with a few ideas, when I suddenly pictured a woman eating soup alone. I added more ideas to this image, and the more I thought about it, the more it became interesting. At the time, the economy was going down, and it was not a good timing to start a new business, but I really wanted to realize this plan, so in order to explain the capability of the new business, I spent 3 months to prepare a story-like presentation entitled "A Day with Soup".

─ That's the presentation you introduced in your book, "I'm going with soup--- a trading company employee starts "Soup Stock Tokyo"---", isn't it? I think it's innovative and easy to understand.

Actually, when I worked for an electronics related department at Mitsubishi, I wrote a presentation entitled "A Day with E-mail", which caused a stir in the office and lead to an opportunity to present it to the president of the company. This small experience of success helped in creating "A Day with Soup". The presentation was in the form of looking back to the past from the future in which the soup restaurant had become a big success, and specific scenes of the interior of the "Soup Stock" restaurant and services were described in detail, as well as the images of logo and cups.

─ So, you repeated your presentation with "A Day with Soup" and finally got an OK to start the business?

I was lucky because the president of KFC at the time, Mr. Okawara, was an aggressive person and was positive about taking on new challenges. So at first, it started as a new business of an affiliated company of KFC. When my loan term ended, the business was transferred to Mitsubishi, and I also made an investment to establish "Smiles Co., Ltd." as the first example of entrepreneurship within Mitsubishi. Therefore, as a company employee, I became president of a venture company. I was 38 years old.

─ Today, ";Soup Stock Tokyo" has established a new food culture for mainly young women in Tokyo, and operates more than 40 outlets. What do you think was the key to such success?

There are several reasons, but I think the primary reason would be "quality". It may sound kind of like an antithesis to fast-food restaurants, because we want to serve tasty, natural additive free soup that is also good for your health. To do that, we choose each ingredient carefully and uncompromisingly in producing our soup. Some people may think that the price is too high for a fast-food restaurant, but considering the ingredients we use and the efforts we put in, our pricing is right at the limit. Our subcontract factory responsible for producing our soup base understands our commitment. Thinking back today, from when I first held my personal exhibition, many people helped me in every step of the way to where I am today. My commitment was the starting point, but I cannot achieve anything alone, and today, Smiles finally has grown out of "Toyama store" to be a corporation with employees working as a team. From here, we want to be an independent "grown-up" company and repay for Mitsubishi and all others who helped us get here.


Each person's "passion" helps the company grow

─ Today, at Smiles, you have a unique employment test called the "love employment"?

Both the company and the student meet as they really are, and fall in love, and feel satisfied to get married... this is the "love employment" we are aiming at. We don't hesitate to show our weakness to the students, because we want them to know the "hardship" and "possibility" they will experience working for Smiles. One student who came to our company information session said that "there hardly was talk about soup!" It may be true that we don't talk about specific issues of business. We take time talking about our passion for our job, and our corporate philosophy which is to "expand values of life", about the "five senses of Smiles" which are "low investment", "high sensibility", "honesty", "workmanship", "independence" and "praise" and that we value these five words very much to realize our corporate philosophy. I think concepts and philosophy are very important for a business organization. Even if your choose something you like for a job, day-to-day work may require patient efforts, and sometimes you will encounter hardships. In such times, if your objectives and philosophy match with those of the company, then you can keep your motivation.

That is how we want to be. Smiles is a company with a lot of opportunity for young people. Immediately after joining the company, you will be assigned to one of the restaurants, and within two years, you will be responsible for the restaurant as a store manager. An outlet is where you can learn management in a compact way, because all kinds of things (people, goods, money and information) change rapidly on a daily basis. In a large company, there are hardly any opportunities for young employees to experience management. By experiencing management, I want young staffs to develop a strong passion of wanting to do something new. This becomes the power to help grow our business.

─ Mr. Toyama, you also had a strong passion in starting "Soup Stock Tokyo" as a new business.

Yes, that's right, and now it is my turn to be surprised by the passion and innovative ideas of young people. The corporate culture of Smiles is communication with our customers, and if an idea is based on this and if it is something one truly thinks is a good idea, it doesn't have to do with food service, it can involve selling commodities, participating in volunteer activities... or anything. I want to support such feelings of young people, and to prepare our company structure so that we can realize these ideas.

─ Are there any specific plans for new business at the moment?

Yes, one of them is cart business. If we can go sell soup in a cart at airport gates and offices, we can expand our business positively, and even possibly expand our business overseas with a very low risk. Cart business itself is not new as you can see with Yakult, but as a cart business of "Soup Stock Tokyo", we want to create a new culture to make people think that cart business is the hot thing today.

─ Before we finish, could you give a message to Keio students?

I think college days are the most important time for a person's life. However, I don't want to say anything about what you should do during this precious time. I want each one of you to find interest in various things, and not to be afraid to move forward. I want you to value your feelings rather than logic or theory. Also, I want you to use your power of concentration preparing for exams and graduation theses for all kinds of other things too.


After graduating from the Faculty of Business and Commerce in 1985, Yoyama joined Mitsubishi Corporation. After experiencing a couple of departments related to construction and electronics, in 1997, he went on loan to Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan Ltd., and in 1999, opened the first "Soup Stock Tokyo", a soup restaurant, in Odaiba, Tokyo. In 2000, he established Smiles Co., Ltd. as an entrepreneurship of Mitsubishi, and became president. In 2005, he became a chairman. Last February, he published "I'm going with soup--- a trading company employee starts "Soup StockTokyo"---" (Shinchosha Publishing Co., Ltd.). He is also active as an artist, designing packages and furniture, and holding private exhibitions in New York, Akasaka and Aoyama.