Yoshiko Shinohara, president of staffing firm Tempholdings Co., has received numerous awards both in Japan and abroad.

Thanks to her company’s steady and robust growth, the 74-year-old Shinohara has been named one of “The Most Powerful Women in Business” by Fortune magazine for nine consecutive years. She was also chosen as one of the “Stars of Asia Entrepreneurs” by BusinessWeek magazine in 2004.

After overcoming various obstacles and expanding her staffing business for 36 years, her company has grown into a group with more than 3,100 employees in 28 domestic and 10 overseas companies.

“Rather than myself, it is our company that has been recognized (for the awards),” she says with characteristic humility. In the business year through March 2007, Tempstaff Co., which Shinohara founded, posted ¥228.9 billion in sales. The figure rose to ¥236.8 billion last year.

Tempstaff has integrated its business with the Nagoya-based staffing firm People Staff Co. Their new parent company, Tempholdings, was established last October.

The road to success has been full of ups and downs.

Shinohara lost her father when she was young. Watching her mother working hard as a midwife, Shinohara came to believe she should also find a job after graduating from school, not necessarily a given back then.

She got her first job in 1953, at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., before moving on to various other jobs and companies. Wanting to spend time abroad, she went to Australia in 1971 and joined a local marketing firm as a secretary.

That was when Shinohara got her first exposure to the staffing business, an unknown concept in Japan at the time. In Australia, temp staff were sent out to fill vacant office positions.

“The business appeared to be working well (there). So I thought I would try it in Japan.”

Back in Tokyo, Shinohara set up Tempstaff in 1973. There was only her, a telephone and a desk.

“The first several years were really hard,” Shinohara recalls. “Everything was definitely tough back then. I didn’t know what to do.”

Still, she distributed brochures to major foreign and domestic firms here, saying typists capable of dealing with English or secretaries were available.

This was during Japan’s rapid economic boom. Foreign firms were showing up to open local branches, and they were looking for staff fluent in English.

Shinohara also took out ads in newspapers seeking English typists and secretaries. One by one, workers came to Shinohara. More firms also came to request office staff.

Even so, she still faced money problems and the lack of people’s understanding of what her fledgling business was all about.

Shinohara paid out salaries to temp workers and then claimed fees from the companies she had sent them to. That inevitably caused temporary shortages in her firm’s coffers.

She tearfully pleaded for loans from her mother several times.

“Her hands trembling, my mother lent me ¥30,000. That was how my company was working,” Shinohara says. “The company was hard up.”

Until the temporary personnel law was enacted in the 1980s, labor authorities often suspected Shinohara was doing something illegal.

Shinohara couldn’t understand it.

“Although there is such high demand from customers and many people are willing to work (as temps), why can’t I engage in the staffing business (‘haken’)?” Shinohara kept asking herself. “If it is a significant activity in Europe and America, why can’t it be done in Japan?”

She thought about throwing in the towel, but around that time she started getting phone calls from companies and workers alike, thanking her for matching them up. “After hearing their voices, I felt I had to keep going.”

As deregulation progressed, temp employees were able to take a wider range of jobs, and Shinohara in 1986 launched a staffing business specializing in information technology engineers during the period when computers were becoming ubiquitous in offices in Japan.

Ambitious to expand her business base to the rest of Asia, Shinohara opened her first overseas office in Hong Kong in 1993.

Currently, the global economic downturn is forcing Japanese manufacturers to slash temp workers’ jobs. Shinohara, however, stresses that the temp system is needed.

“While the economic situation is really always progressing, such a flexible form of employment or way of work is absolutely necessary,” she says.

She maintains the system enables corporations to hire employees needed on a temporary basis while freeing workers from having to stay at one company in the lifetime employment system.

Housewives can raise their kids while working as temps, and men can work for short hours while attending school to acquire a special skill, Shinohara says.

She hopes to make her company more global by expanding the business network abroad in the future.

With Japan’s low birthrate, another goal is to make it easier for working women to give birth and raise their kids, she said.

Shinohara operates five nursery schools in the Tokyo area and launched a company dispatching teachers.

“I hope to increase our nursery schools one by one,” she says.

In this occasional series, we interview entrepreneurs whose spirit may hold the key to a more competitive Japan.

Highlights of Shinohara’s career

1953 — Joins Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, where she remains until 1957.

1966 — Studies language and typing in Switzerland and Britain.

1971 — Moves to Australia and begins working as a secretary for a marketing firm.

1973 — Returns to Japan and establishes Tempstaff.

1993 — Opens first overseas office in Hong Kong.

2001 — Creates Tempstaff Wish, dispatching workers to nurseries and kindergartens.

2004 — One of 25 Stars of Asia chosen by BusinessWeek.

2008 — Integrates business with Nagoya-based staffing firm People Staff and establishes parent company Tempholdings.

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