Technology keeping Mizuno key player in sports market

by Jack Gallagher

It’s funny how fate plays a role in life.

News photoMasato Mizuno, president of the Mizuno Corp., speaks at a recent meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in Tokyo.

An unplanned meeting or a stroke of luck can sometimes bring results that are unpredictable.

In the case of one Japanese family, it led to fame and prosperity.

That’s how it all started for the worldwide sporting goods leader Mizuno Corp., according to company president Masato Mizuno.

Speaking before a recent meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in Tokyo, Mizuno discussed the history of his family’s company, its current endeavors and plans for the future.

Mizuno told the story of how his grandfather — company founder Rihachi — happened upon a sporting event back around the beginning of the 20th century, and how it was the catalyst for an entity that is now nearing its 100th birthday.

“My grandfather — just by chance — saw a baseball game in Kyoto when he was 18, and he was charmed and amazed. He thought sports would be a great thing to be involved with.

“When he returned from the Japan-Russia war in 1906, he started a small shop in Osaka. He really loved sports. He knew we had to promote sports to create a market. He was one of the initiators of baseball at high schools in Japan.”

Mizuno says his grandfather, who was was elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971, seized the opportunity presented by the introduction of the sport to students.

“Shortly after high schools started playing baseball, in 1913, my grandfather started to make baseballs. He took a trip to Europe to analyze the market there for sporting goods, and he realized that technology would be the key factor for manufacturing sporting goods.

“My grandfather was a man of passion. He could feel the future.”

Mizuno, a board member of the Japan Olympic Committee, said the combination of his grandfather’s fervor and his father’s (Kenjiro) practicality helped make the company what it is today.

“My father is more logical, because he studied the scientific approach. He is the one who created our technology base which we have traditionally maintained. We have a large research and development department.”

The 62-year-old Mizuno, who was awarded the Olympic Order of Merit by the IOC in 2001 for his contribution to the Olympic movement, says that success didn’t naturally go down the family tree.

“I became the president of the company in 1988 at the height of the economic bubble. I was young and I failed with all of the new endeavors. I learned a lot from this.

“Sometimes you have to go through tough times to become a better man.”

He noted how the post-bubble era has been a challenging one for Mizuno.

“The past 10 years we have had a hard time with our business. We have to compete with huge companies like Nike, adidas, Puma, and in the domestic market with Asics, Descente and Yonex. All of the companies are making good products, so we have to stay competitive.

“Mizuno must be unique. Our R & D is strongly emphasized to develop new products.”

Mizuno, who holds bachelor’s degrees in both economics (from Kobe’s Konan University) and chemistry (from Carthage College in Wisconsin), cited an example of how his company remains competitive with cutting-edge technology.

“We have a ‘Wave Plate’ in the sole of our running shoes. This provides a good cushion and stability. Our patented wave technology provides both,” he said as he showed off a pair of cross-trainers.

“Runner’s World magazine has selected our wave technology shoes as their ‘Editor’s Choice’ or ‘Best Buy’ for the past five years.”

Some of Mizuno’s relationships stretch back decades yet are still evolving.

“We have been a licensee of Speedo swimsuits since 1966. Mizuno has worked with Toray to develop swimsuit material. It looks like sharkskin,” again demonstrating a sample of the product.

“The rough-surface effect decreases the turbulence on the surface. Some portion of the suit absorbs water and another portion repels it, so the swimmer can go faster.”

Mizuno, who began working in the family business in 1966, says that in the current business environment, his company has to be very tactical with its undertakings.

“When we develop a product, we create a timeline, we study the sport, we learn the regulations, then we go to the federation and get permission to develop, and finally, approval for it.

“It is easy to start a new endeavor, but difficult to run. We have to be careful, and have a good strategy and timeline.”

Mizuno recognizes that while continuing to produce traditional items is important, adapting to the ever-changing needs of the consumer is equally vital.

“We have stuck with sports equipment and the competition area, because we are good at developing functional products, but sales are limited. But now we are trying to challenge in the ‘lifestyle’ area with casual wear.”

Mizuno, which is the official supplier of uniforms to the IOC, has also had long and successful associations with numerous top athletes including Ichiro Suzuki, Carl Lewis, Seve Ballesteros, Pete Rose and Koji Murofushi.

“We have 100 to 200 professional baseball players in Japan under contract,” Mizuno said. “In the States, the number is around 300.

“We have one representative that follows each Japanese pro baseball team. This way we can have a dialogue with the players and make deals. Eight teams out of 12 wear Mizuno uniforms.

“Pete Rose was the first major leaguer to wear Mizuno. Ichiro and (Hideki) Matsui now wear Mizuno in the majors.”

Mizuno, whose family’s association with the Olympics goes back to the 1924 Paris Games, is heavily involved with the IOC today, serving on committees and traveling abroad to IOC meetings.

Despite this, he admitted that the elimination of baseball for the 2012 London Games came as a real blow.

“It was a big shock when baseball was dropped from the Olympics by the IOC. I was a member of the ‘reform commission’ following the Salt Lake City scandal.”

Mizuno provided interesting detail on how the IOC meeting in Singapore in July, where baseball and softball were voted off the Olympic program, unfolded.

“Denis Oswald, who is the president of the Summer Games’ organization, made a great speech in support of baseball, softball and other sports, and spoke about the solidarity and unity of the Olympics as a group. The feeling at that point was good.

“However, right before the vote, President Rogge (IOC boss Jacques) said, ‘Remember why we put up these three sports (baseball, softball, modern pentathlon) up for possible exclusion from the Olympics.’ Then he spoke about the reasons and said, ‘We have to make a reform of the Olympic Games.’ Then the vote was held and baseball and softball were out.”

Mizuno acknowledged that one of the toughest obstacles facing his company now is the changes in society and proliferation of non-sporting, recreational activities.

“We have fewer kids today. Most of them are protected too much by their parents. More of these parents are working outside the home.

“Parents are worried about their kids being kidnapped, so they say, ‘Why don’t you stay at home and I will buy you some computer games.’

“So we are faced with real competition in trying to bring the kids out to the fields again for sports. Kids choose whichever is more fun. We are losing now, so we have to make sports more exciting to attract the kids and have them be healthier.”

Mizuno even used an example of how his own company has broken from tradition to remain viable.

“Since 1998, we haven’t followed the seniority system in our company, but go on ability. ‘I told them (the staff), ‘if you want to be treated like you have before, you have to work hard and give me some results.’

“During the bubble economy, we had 4,000 employees in Japan. However, we had a tough time after the bubble and had to reduce the company to 2,000. We now have about 5,000 people working for us worldwide, including 2,000 in China.”