Business / Corporate | EXECUTIVE DECISIONS

First non-Japanese chief of Tomy believes innovation is key to reviving toymaker's fortunes

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Tomy Co.’s new CEO said the company plans to introduce innovation that changes the way people play with toys and will improve the branding of its iconic products, such as its Licca-chan dolls, as part of a global expansion strategy.

One thing “I really want to do is to make toys more than just toys,” said H.G. Meij, 51, in an interview with The Japan Times last week. “I want toys to become part of your life.”

The shareholders of the Tokyo-based toymaker chose Meij, a native of the Netherlands, as its first foreign CEO in June at the company’s annual meeting.

Toys are traditionally played with by children and many target specific age groups. But Meij said the new types of toys he has in mind should be “ageless,” “endless” and “borderless.”

Males and females of any age can play with the toys, without growing bored, said Meij, who is fluent in Japanese and familiar with the culture, as he spent his childhood in Japan.

One new type of toy is a talking robot called OHaNAS, jointly developed with NTT Docomo Inc.

By using Docomo’s Internet-based conversation system, users can chat with the robot. OHaNAS, which stands for “organized human interface and network artificial intelligence system,” can provide weather information, play music and search for restaurants.

The robot’s communication abilities improve as data from its interaction with humans is recorded and stored on the Internet.

“(OHaNAS) is much more than a toy. It’s not really geared just for children. It’s for adults but even more for senior citizens,” Meij said.

He added that combining digital and analog is key for new toys.

Creating a new type of toy is one thing, but for Tomy to grow further, Meij stressed that the firm also must enhance the brand images of its existing products.

While Tomy boasts many popular toy series, such as Tomica mini cars, Licca-chan dolls and Plarail mini trains, Meij said the branding should be improved.

For instance, Licca-chan is such a famous toy that pretty much every Japanese person knows the brand, so the recognition level is as high as other popular characters like Hello Kitty. But compared to Licca-chan, Hello Kitty is more widely used in collaborative marketing efforts and has higher sales.

The firm has registered Licca-chan on Twitter as one strategy to improve the dolls image. It tweets things such as what she’s doing, where she is going and comments on how she feels about news events.

“Through tweeting she is actually showing her personality . . . Now she has a spirit, then we can change the product,” said Meij.

He added the new marketing strategies are necessary for the company, which has struggled lately.

Tomy recorded a record ¥8.9 billion net profit in fiscal 2009 following ¥178.7 billion in sales. But sales and profits have declined in the past few years. In fiscal 2014, the firm saw just ¥149.9 billion in sales and recorded a ¥1.8 billion net loss for the year.

Meij said Tomy previously focused on short-term product launches, but will now shift to investing more on improving its brands.

He also said he will facilitate the firm’s expansion into overseas markets.

“(Tomy) is one of the oldest toy companies in the world. We are very big in Japan but we are not that big globally. But we definitely believe that there’s a lot of potential for our kind of innovation, our type of quality, our type of product category.”

In its bid to increase overseas sales, the firm plans to market low-priced products in Southeast Asia and higher-end toys in the U.S. and Europe.

Although he has a lot to do as CEO, leading Tomy is a dream come true for Meij. “I think it was always my dream to be able to lead a Japanese listed company,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing because there are not many foreigners who have led Japanese listed companies before.”

He is confident that his multicultural background, Japanese language skills and understanding of the culture will help him.

He said he leaves the door of his office open, so any employee can stop by to talk to him. According to employees, he also casually drops by different divisions to speak to staff.

After spending his childhood in Japan, Meij lived in Indonesia and later studied in the U.S. before returning to Japan. He has worked at firms including Sunstar Group, Unilever and Coca Cola. He came to Tomy in 2014 and worked as chief operating officer before becoming CEO.