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Going beyond furniture to lure in all and sundry

by Takahiro Fukada

Focusing on something few others do can lead to business success, as Fumio Takashima has shown.

The president and chief executive officer of Tokyo-based BALS Corp. launched the first Francfranc store in 1992, selling both furniture and sundry goods, a strategy few other firms were attempting back then.

Drawn by the affordable prices, young people flocked to the store.

The company now has 120 directly run and franchised stores in Japan and other parts of Asia stocking some 6,000 items. It posted a net profit of ¥1.65 billion in the business year that ended in January.

But Takashima, 53, a native of Fukui Prefecture, said he has never felt content with his business and always strives to reach higher.

“No matter how far we go, there is no goal to be reached,” Takashima told The Japan Times during a recent interview, saying he will avoid labeling himself a success in his lifetime. “Conceit is extremely dangerous for corporate management.”

Takashima said he opened his first Francfranc retail store in Tokyo’s Tennouzu-Isle waterfront district to lure customers not only with furniture the company had originally handled as a wholesaler but also with sundry items that were new to the company.

“Since everyone visits furniture stores only three times in their lifetime, I thought furniture only would not be enough” to actively attract customers, Takashima said. “Sundry goods would be needed as a lure for us to sell furniture.”

Takashima judged that customers would visit his stories more often to see the nonfurniture items, and the boost in foot traffic would increase overall sales.

Originally offering around 100 items, including dining utensils, drinking glasses, stationery and other reasonably priced sundries, the unique stores have proved popular, to Takashima’s surprise. He subsequently opened new shops in other cities, mainly in the Tokyo and Osaka metropolitan areas.

Targeting mid-20s urban women, his employees around that age select which items to sell — and design new products — by considering their own must-haves.

Most Francfranc merchandise is bright and colorful. “It is relatively more entertaining than being dark, isn’t it?” Takashima asked.

He also said he has been trying to be a good listener to his customers so he can improve service. “Since we had no previous experience in retail, we adopted the principle that our customers would be the judge of whether our service was good or bad,” he said.

The business appeared trouble-free, but wasn’t.

Opening a store would cost tens of millions of yen. When one or two outlets became unprofitable, the company would fall short of operating funds.

Takashima once suspended his own salary for around half a year and also had to depend on consumer loan companies to meet his payroll obligations.

“I was doing my business just like riding a bike,” he recalled, adding that he went to banks and wholesalers to seek financial assistance.

Overcoming the difficulties, his company became profitable in 1996 and Takashima immediately bought out the firm from its parent company to procure ample funds from the financial market to open more shops.

BALS in 2002 listed its stocks on the JASDAQ market and in the following year opened its first Francfranc store overseas, in Hong Kong. Takashima said he started overseas retail operations because he believes there are people around the world who want products to make their life better.

Driven by this conviction, Takashima opened seven more outlets in Hong Kong and Taiwan. His first store in Seoul opens this month.

To attract customers, Takashima now targets people who “feel they are 25.” Their actual ages can range from teens to their 50s and beyond.

Middle-aged customers have richer life experiences, Takashima believes. He said his company needs to enhance product quality to satisfy them too.

Takashima also aims to open new stores in urban areas, improve product design and quality, and raise the firm’s operating profit to 20 percent of sales.

For Takashima, there is no end to his business horizon.

Highlights of Takashima’s career

1979 — Joins a Fukui Prefecture-based furniture maker as a salesman.

1990 — Establishes BALS under its arm to sell imported furniture and interior goods.

1992 — Opens the first Francfranc retail store for interior furniture and sundries in Tokyo’s Tennouzu-Isle district.

1996 — Buys out the firm from its parent company.

2002 — Lists the company’s stock on the JASDAQ market.

2003 — Opens the first Francfranc store overseas in Hong Kong.

2006 — Lists the firm’s stock on the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.