Fumiko Motoya is one of the best-known faces of corporate Japan.
The president of the Apa Hotel chain appears on TV shows and has been featured in a variety of publications, everything from business weeklies to a gay magazine.
She became famous after her photos adorned billboards and train advertisements. And she loves the attention — even the negative kind.
“I am confident that I can turn these people into my fans,” she said, referring to those who take issue with her self-promotion. “It shows interest. Dislike can be turned into favor.”
The 58-year-old Fukui Prefecture native became head of the hotel chain in 1994.
It was part of the Apa Group real estate business established by her husband, Toshio, in Ishikawa Prefecture in 1971. Motoya said she was the group’s top condominium seller before she took over the presidency of the hotel chain.
With relatively good locations and a number of discount programs, the hotel chain has enjoyed strong growth and has been aggressively expanding. It currently has 41 properties nationwide with a combined 9,300 rooms.
When Motoya assumed the presidency, the Apa Group’s hotel business was not a big profit generator, nor was it expected to become one.
But since she took over, the chain’s annual revenue has increased 4.5 times to 14.3 billion yen, and the bottom line has grown from barely breaking even to 1.44 billion yen, according to her husband.
It is her face that has made the relatively unknown hotel chain a household name, known even to schoolgirls.
Her debut 11 years ago in a full-page newspaper ad, featuring her picture with the underline, “I am a president,” shocked the public.
Since then, photos of her in a flashy hat — and sometimes holding a wine glass — have appeared on billboards and trains.
In Japan, it is uncommon for company executives to use themselves in advertising, so Motoya’s gimmick has made some people uncomfortable. Angry calls have flooded the firm. One complaint said her self-promotion “disturbs the public’s welfare.”
Soon after the newspaper ads began appearing, a senior executive from a major public relations agency declared in a college lecture that it was the worst ad of all time, not knowing Motoya’s son was in the audience.
But she has kept her cool. She also said it is better that she is not very beautiful.
“If I were as beautiful as Cleopatra, people would not have paid that much attention,” she said.
The world is full of envy and jealousy, she said.
“If I were a super-beauty, I would invite negative feelings. I am happy that ladies see my photo and think they are better,” Motoya said.
Despite the complaints, the campaign was not designed as a quirky ploy to raise eyebrows. The intention was to portray a serious business.
“By showing the face, we are showing where the responsibility lies,” she said. “In Japan, being humble and reserved is considered a virtue, but I decided to build a new image of corporate leader.”
Husband Toshio agrees.
“It is a common practice in Western countries,” Toshio said. “If it is not clear who is in charge, leadership is hard to exert.”
Motoya said she has never been shy, even as a child, and is always sure of herself. She has thrown a dinner party for 800 and sang to her quests.
Yet her flamboyant, celebrity image is only a part of her personality. She also relishes her role as wife and mother. She has a good relationship with her husband and they have two sons. She loves to take care of the home and enjoys doing the chores.
Toshio said these traits have also helped the business.
Before she took charge, the hotels were rather drab establishments used mainly by businessmen. She has brought a traditional Japanese inn-like atmosphere to the chain through attention to detail, he said.
One example is that the hotels now offer disposable slipper inserts so women will feel less uncomfortable walking in used slippers.
“I would never have thought about something like that,” Toshio said.
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