Had a fantastic three years working for the largest noodle company in the world. Straight out from management consulting, working in restaurant industry and (sounds a little odd but true feelings) and for Japanese company was a pretty fresh and an eye-opening experience. Here are some uncooked thoughts of mine from that three years
Prior to noodle world:
- After graduating from university from, objectively speaking, #thebestcityever town (i.e., Kyoto), I landed in – as one does – management consulting. I was the first native Japanese undergrad joining that European management consulting firm in Tokyo office, where all the work was pretty much done in foreign language called English. I had “some” overseas experience before getting into college, spent 2yrs in Germany when I was 5yo (all were in German), but the rest I was stuck in rural city called Ibaraki, which scored #47 out of 47 in “most attractive cities in Japan”.
- First two years was struggling – consulting itself was a new and challenging thing and doing that in foreign language.. hmm. My competitive advantage in the company was really – “Japanese” – being a native Japanese and able to speak native Japanese. I remember creating a talk script for phone interview or macro-enabled (Japanese) email generators for co-workers. My girlfriend and now wife would joke that my Japanese keigo (formal expressions) was weird but who knows – it’s all relative :)
- In that 4yrs I never really identified myself exceptional or outperforming aside of organize drinking (think I’ve once almost got complement on annual review) but was lucky enough to get opportunity spending time in Paris and Boston office. Times spent in through those experience was amazing – obviously a lot of learning professionally and learnings from being minority and those shit but above all – made many good friends. Life is long and seem to get longer. Work could be a good excuse and a tool to make good friends
So whatabouts in Udon shop?
- After spending 4yrs in consulting I jumped into a Udon shop. To be precise – it was a corporate strategy role at a restaurant company so I don’t think I took too much risk from resume perspective but for some people it looked like a bit of surprise. To me – I always wished to be on the other side of the table I.e., client side after spending some time in consulting so was kinda natural move to me.
- I was seeking to be part of corporate side, “doing” side from “advising” side, as one does. Helping the U.S. expansion of a Japanese restaurant company sounded like a perfect fit for me who was hoping to be a) doing something related to U.S. or Europe and b) involved in B2C than B2B like industrial products or specialty chemicals. Also food (restaurant) sounded like something that Japan could still compete or expand to other geographies
- In the past three years, I worked on:
- Led JV formation of a Japanese iconic udon brand with US-based PE fund
- Investment and turnaround of a leading fast casual brand in the US
- Exit and sales of multiple struggling brands in the US and Japan
- 20% Board room pitches, 80% push push push: As a consultant, I’ve always wondered what would happen after that 100+ pages pitch is out. Client seems to be satisfied. They appreciate all of our all-nighters and pay our snacks. What’s next? That was a running thoughts while I was at consulting and I was keen to find out. My short answer after being on the other side of the meeting room is – nothing. Like, nothing. I’ve had both experience of being a client side of a consulting firm and also proposing ideas to portfolio companies with using some ppt techniques and monitor thereafter. Seeing pretty slides that are logical and sound makes you feel better and does provide you insights. It sometime has some practical, specific recommendations too. However, it takes time and resources to execute it. I’ve always wondered why clients are so slow on responding emails or providing (messy) data. I know why now. It’s because they have daily work and typically the work doing with consultants are ‘additional’ work, that supposed to broaden their perspective and change the way of business they do. But it typically does not lessen the daily routine they need to do. So it’s natural and not much related to their capability etc. that they are slow. Providing insights that the stakeholders were not aware of requires a lot of intellectual capability and brand power, but making sure people actually do it, without changing drastically what they are doing right now requires a heck more of (your) resources. You may need to repeat 10 times what you already clearly described in your beautiful slides. You need to keep reminding the stakeholders why this is important and what we need to be thinking. Sometime, grabbing beer might be a better use of your time to convince that decision maker to do stuff. ‘Post-merger-integration’ is probably a term to describe what I was doing, but to me it was more like ‘baby-sitting’. You need to push, push, and push to make things happen. It was certainly frustrating. It was not just one time that I felt that I should just do it by myself. But I am not like a restauranteur with 20yr experience or master of food-safety protocol. You need to work and make sure those experts are headed to the direction you believe we should be heading for. Looking back, I feel there were more times that I was frustrated than joking with the stakeholders but once the needle moves and the team is headed to the right direction and you see some tangible outcome started to come in, there is something rewarding and grateful than getting A+ on reviews or getting thumbs up from clients. Some people like to be on this side and some people don’t prefer, but I certainly felt in long term I’d love to be in this ‘doing’ side.
- Right, company dies when there is no cash, and not when it’s negative: There were three companies I’ve spend good amount of time to improve. 1 company changed a lot organizationally and headed to a right direction, one made transformation and logically in good shape (yet to be fully proven with tangible figures), and the other one went out of business. The last one was fairly small size business (a couple mil $ revenue with ~10 employees) and I was taking more operational role as C-suite. I’ve implemented what seemed to be logically right, and the employees were motivated too. We improved the negative cashflow, but it did not quite turn into positive cashflow, and we ran out of cash. I think I heard in some classes that PnL is a ‘perspective’ and cash is the king. It was only until I face it that I realised what that meant. We had some other companies so fortunately we did not necessarily have to ‘fire’ people and instead asking people to move to different work, but naturally some people left, including the people I hired, because for some of them being offered different work probably meant almost the same as being fired. Looking back, I worked on multiple growth initiatives, both organic and inorganic (M&A) which looked fancy and was generally fun, but also on multiple projects that are more like ‘clean up’ type of work. Restructuring. Divesting. New management. This three years taught me more ‘real’ side of business that comes with some bitter or sometime painful feeling. I still question, if there were more things I could have done better to drive the revenue or cut the cost to generate positive cashflow. I still don’t feel I am eligible to say it was a ‘good’ experience. But I am glad that I did experience those bitter sides and not just sweet side
- You don’t understand what Japan is like and IT IS TOTALLY FINE: Food is a very domestic thing. Japanese people eat Japanese food everyday, Germans eat sausages, Indians eat curry, and Americans eat burger and pizza. Last 10-20 years the food scene got globalized in many part of the world, however, if you look the majority of the people in each country, they follow the food scene that they were used to in the past decades. Similarly, people’s understanding of different culture or country surely evolved with more people traveling and easier information access, but again, if you look at the majority of the people it is not that much. I made almost 30 trips to the US in the past three years and visited many area and spoke to variety of people. I almost think people’s understanding of Japan for instance hasn’t change that significantly from the era of Marco Polo (1254-1324) who described Japan as ‘Chipangu’. Some people may think there are still geishas hanging around and Ninja may be running in the corner. If my friends mention to those things, I’d probably try to adjust the understanding a little bit, however, in the context of promoting authentic Japanese food (restaurant), it is TOTALLY FINE. We are here to sell more noodle nad make money, and not necessarily to educate what exactly Japan is. Of course we will keep our authentic way of making noodle which has been around for 1000+ years since the great monk Ku-kai introduced it, but when it comes to the interface (of the store for instance), we will not spend extensive effort to make it entirely correct authentic look. Maybe one day the guests get interest in Japan through our food and visit, and may explore something that they did not know. That would be great, but as far as we doing business in the U.S., I believe it makes more sense the ‘user interface’ to be localized without sticking to whatever authenticity is (again, we strictly maintain authenticity in the food quality side). That’s why we hanged a wall picture that may almost look like Chinese drawings when average Japanese people looked at it, or made ‘Mac & Cheese Udon’ too. There are surprisingly many Japanese people criticizes about sushi shop in the US managed by non-Japanese asians saying that the restaurant is not authentic, but they are the ones that drove the localization and eventually made food like sushi to be the common food.
Not sure what the underlying key message is, but wanted to leave some thoughts before a move. I’ve had a great time at consulting, and so did I for this time. I don’t think I was talented to make better decisions, but rather I was born in a way that I don’t want to regret what I’ve chosen in the past. I’d rather do whatever to make me feel it was a good move. A big thank you to all the people spent time together in the past three years.
Oh last and not least – it’s nice to be out by 6 on most days.