It is 7:30 a.m. and Takaaki Kawashima has less than one hour to spare before leaving for Narita airport. He’s due to take a midday flight to London, arriving in time for dinner with Prince Charles, Camilla and a small group of intimates at Clarendon House. He will leave for Japan again Friday morning, arriving back the following day.
“Yes, crazy,” he agrees in immaculate British English, “but how often does such an opportunity pop up?”
Takaaki is chairman of Aquascutum, the London-based clothing company that has been taking its lead from British culture and heritage since 1851.
“Our best-selling design remains the traditional trench coat,” he explains. “But nowadays we do a full range of fashionable women’s and men’s wear while remaining close to Aquascutum’s philosophy of authenticity. That’s why I was in London last week, for the collections. Yes, I just got back; now here I am, off again.”
His father was a government officer who after World War II worked in the planning department for Japan’s new economy. Awarded a scholarship by the British Council after the Korean War, he went to London. “I was born soon after he left, and for the first two years of growing up in Bunkyo Ward, saw very little of him. But that is where his love of British culture became entrenched, and I guess he must have passed it on to me.”
After gaining a degree in political science and law, however, Takaaki headed for postgraduate studies at Northwestern University in Chicago. “My father was two years in Britain, I was two years in America. But when he traveled, he went by ship, which took six weeks each way, so in fact I was in the States longer!”
Returning here, Takaaki went to work for the Industrial Bank of Japan and loved it. “Before World War II, IBJ as it was then was a typical developing bank; afterward, it served to reconstruct Japan.” When he left in 2001, colleagues and customers all asked the same question: Why? “I wanted to branch out, do something on my own. Merchant banks help businesses grow.”
First he worked in private equity, helping Schroeder Bank with its own venture business. In 2004, he became independent with Kaleido Holdings Inc. “Kaleido is from ‘kaleidoscope,’ meaning a catalyst for change. All the pieces are small and only made of glass. But each time you change them around, enriched, beautiful.”
When Takaaki began thinking to set up up Kaleido, much of Japanese industry was still in chaos. Each step he takes now as managing partner is deliberate but creatively lateral. He looks beyond the obvious, scanning the full range of possibilities. Most recently, for example, he moved into shipbuilding.
“Globally there is a huge future in sea transportation. The total current business is worth around $60 billion, divided between Korea ($20 billion), Japan (less than $20 billion) and China ($10 billion). The rest is divided up piecemeal, with Japan offering state-of-the-art technology. Investing in Nakai Zosen will help raise our profile on the oceanic map.”
It was the Japanese company Renown that was first attracted by the elitist profile of the Aquascutum label. “Not only did Renown buy out the Jewish family stake during the bubble era, but it retained Aquascutum’s loyal customer base in Italy.”
Aquascutum (meaning “water shield” in Latin) made its name by dressing the aristocracy and upper-middle classes to combat the dampening effects of Britain’s traditional bad — meaning wet — weather. “We’ve come a long way since then, of course. Our last collection, the third, was far wider in appeal, and very well received.”
No sooner is Takaaki back from London than he is in Kyoto. “I have a meeting on Sunday with the Daishinto Group, founded as an outsourcing company for government-related business. Remember how in the U.K., Margaret Thatcher shrank back her government and outsourced large parts of its business, defense especially? It’s not so bad here, but still . . .”
In Japan, he explains, school cafeterias, libraries and transport systems are popular targets for outsourcing. In local communities, structures are segmented: public buses are linked to the Ministry of Transportation; school buses to the Ministry of Education; and day-care buses for the elderly and physically challenged to the Ministry of Welfare.
“As society changes,” says Takaaki, “such structuring needs to change. We need to reorganize buses, for example, toward one community bus. Then in an emergency, like a major earthquake, it will be easy to commandeer the entire fleet to help with evacuation. . . . There’s a lot of room for rationalization.”
Delighted that his travel outfit (power black, naturally) is recognized as Yoji Yamamoto, he reminisces about the suit his mother bought him at his job commencement with IBJ in 1976. “It cost 100,000 yen from Mitsukoshi, when my starting starting was only 85,000 yen a month.”
One reason it still fits is that he works out daily from 6:30 a.m. at TAC. “I live only 10 minutes away in Minami-Azabu, so it’s easy.”
Easy, I suppose, it you have already been up for two hours! Takaaki rises daily at 4:30 to read a book (mostly philosophy), then cooks, wakening his family with breakfast — pork or beef, seven vegetables and salad — at around 6. They know what they like, too. His eldest son (21) always has white rice, his wife, toast, and the 12-year-old dips into everything.
In his office by 9, Takaaki prepares to deliver assignments to his staff for the day ahead. Having delegated, he’s done. “I spend the rest of the day seeing customers and generally fooling around.”
Nice work if you can get it. And Takaaki is getting it. Royal invites to dinner and all.