Name: Michael Alfant
Title: President of Tokyo American Club (since November 2016)
DoB: May 20, 1961
Hometown: New York City
Years in Japan: 29
Tokyo American Club (TAC) President Michael Alfant is the kind of person who thinks on his feet. And he spends a lot of time on them; the native of Brooklyn, New York, walks about 100 kilometers every week.
Walking is a major part of Alfant’s lifestyle, whether he’s strolling 13 kilometers to his favorite pizza spot in Oji or making his way over the Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba. Alfant shared that he finds his urban hikes meditative — the 57-year-old also keeps up an informal morning meditation practice — as well as a great opportunity to work out ideas during walking meetings with friends or with his employees at Fusion Systems, his Tokyo-based finance information technology company in Azabudai.
Alfant first got involved with TAC by helping to improve its food and beverage operations in 2013. He later chaired the Food and Beverage Committee before being elected president in 2016. Although a multinational IT firm and a members’ club that serves more than 14,000 people might not seem to have a lot in common, Alfant shares that his particular business background has prepared him well to lead TAC.
“I think it’s useful for me in terms of being a good project manager, being a logical thinker and being able to compartmentalize. I mean, this club is a big business,” Alfant said. To elaborate, TAC employs over 400 people and encompasses more than half a dozen restaurants, a gym, library, swimming pool, banquet services and a car park.
“All of those threads operate somewhat independently, but need to be integrated at some point,” he said. “So, it’s not all that different than a complex technology project for a large client where there are multiple work streams and multiple threads that need to be integrated under some coherent vision and carried forward.”
As Alfant explained, TAC has a clear vision in sight. “It’s really all about member value. So yes, this is a business and we must never forget it’s a business, but the primary focus of this club is to provide value to its members.”
Moreover, TAC includes a very broad variety of members. Almost half are Japanese, and only about a quarter come from the United States. The rest hail from around the globe, and this breadth of membership is part of what makes TAC unique and gives it the potential to achieve impressive things in the future.
“That makes it interesting — the diversity, the different tastes and experiences that all these members bring to the table,” he said. “If we can create a sense of openness and community within that group, we will have a lot of interesting things going on in the club, long-term.”
One thing that Alfant is already looking forward to is that TAC has been chosen as the USA House for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, something he believes “is huge for the club, and for the club’s members. That’s something we can all be proud of and take with us going forward.”
Alfant also takes pride in the connection between the United States and Japan that TAC represents. “I think the club really symbolizes the deep affinity that the U.S. and Japan have as societies and as countries. There is really no closer relationship on the planet than the U.S. and Japan from a geopolitical sense. This building, and this community, are the manifestation of that,” he said.
In many ways, Alfant’s own life reveals a similar connection between his native and adopted countries. He was first drawn to Japan in the 1980s, having initially been sent there by the Wall Street firm he was working with at the time. He was given a piece of advice by one of his Japanese superiors, and he found that it resonated with him — even though he didn’t know what it meant at first.
“He said to me, ‘Mike, in Japan, okyakusan wa kamisama desu (the customer is god),’ and I really liked it once I understood what it meant. I found it was very consistent with my approach to business. You know, in the U.S. in business school, you’re taught as a CEO that your primary responsibility is to shareholders, which I appreciate and understand. In Japan, there is a subtext, which is that your primary responsibility is to your customers. So that appealed to me. I like the relational nature of business in Japan.”
He has followed this relational approach throughout his business career, and it’s the basis of one of the few things that the generally humble Brooklyn-Tokyoite takes pride in.
“I don’t think there is anyone out there who will say I have ever treated them unfairly or poorly,” said Alfant. “I would take great pride in my reputation in the business community here as being a fair, honest, transparent, impartial and open person who puts other people’s interests ahead of his own.”
Given Alfant’s business success, technology know-how and his standing in Tokyo’s foreign community, people often come to him for investment advice. However, rather than suggesting particularly hot stock tips, he recommends something more fundamental, for both newcomers to Tokyo and old hands.
“To me, the thing you should invest in is yourself. Invest in your education, in your health, in your well-being, in your maturity, in building out your network and your personal community,” he said.
Career sees launch of over 20 companies
After beginning his career in information technology for Wall Street companies in the 1980s, New York native Michael Alfant first came to Japan in 1989 with an IT consulting firm. Recognizing the vast potential in Japan’s developing IT industry, he launched the first iteration of Fusion Systems in 1992 and sold the company in 1999. Over the course of his career, he has harnessed what he believes are crucial qualities in an entrepreneur — subject matter expertise, an insensitivity to risk and fairly thick skin — to start more than 20 companies, including the second version of Fusion Systems, which currently has offices in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Los Angeles. He also served as the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan from 2011 to 2012 and is currently the president of Tokyo American Club. He spends his spare time exercising, meditating, reading and exploring Tokyo on long, urban hikes.
The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.