Business / Corporate

Housewife who saved Toyoko hotel chain puts focus on female managers

Maiko Kuroda isn’t new to challenges. She was a housewife when her father’s hotel chain was embroiled in scandal, forcing her to return to the business almost a decade ago. Having boosted profit tenfold, she’s now eyeing markets in Europe and North America.

Enter Donald Trump and other protectionist politicians whose ideas are taking hold amid a backlash against globalization. The specter of rising protectionism may threaten the company’s goal of one day operating 10.45 million rooms around the world.

For now, Toyoko Inn Co. is pushing ahead with plans to open hotels in Germany and France this year, and is seeking permission for a more than 1,000-room property in New York’s Queens, said company President Kuroda in an interview at the company’s Tokyo headquarters. The company, which puts its success down to female management in male-dominated Japan, is now left pondering Trump.

“We can’t rule out the possibility of the rapid development of economic blocs, just like before the Second World War, looking at Trump and a number of other phenomena,” said Chairman Kenji Watanabe, speaking at the same interview. “We may need to become more cautious.”

Kuroda, a mother of two, was a housewife in Germany in 2008 when her father, Norimasa Nishida, the founder of the company, stepped down amid a scandal involving the illegal dumping of construction material. Kuroda says she brazenly put up her hand for the job to rejoin Toyoko Inn, where she had worked for three years after graduating from university.

The dramatic turnaround of the company isn’t the only story that makes 40-year-old Kuroda stand out in the corporate scene. Rather it’s her background and advancement of a strategy prioritizing women over men in the hiring of managers that is seen as an anomaly in the traditionally male-dominated society.

Ninety-seven percent of the company’s more than 250 hotels are run by women, a stark difference to most walks of life in Japan, where men account for about 93 percent of management roles.

Toyoko Inn targets domestic business travelers, providing them with rooms in convenient locations, such as near train stations, at relatively affordable prices of less than $100. The strategy has so far proven to be successful at home, but it hasn’t been as smooth overseas. The company succeeded in implementing its model in South Korea, but failed in Cambodia, where it has to rely more on tourists, according to Kuroda.

The 53-story New York hotel would be its biggest yet and may take three more years, Kuroda said. A 400-room hotel is scheduled to open in front of Frankfurt Central Station in February, and another property in Marseilles, France, later in the year. The closely-held company has no plans to file for an initial public offering, Kuroda said.

While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has touted women as key to boosting growth, his government has backpedaled on a target of having female workers in 30 percent of supervisory positions in all fields by 2020. Kuroda said her first step in hiring female managers is to ask “who wants to become a leader.”

Reiko Sato, a 45-year-old hotel manager for the company, joined three years ago after working with a small trading company for 10 years, where she always wondered what things would be like if she was in charge. The mother of twin daughters in their teens, Sato also wanted a job where she could take off weekends and holidays. Workdays she often leaves after 7 p.m.

“Women managers work so hard,” said Kuroda. “They have the sort of fighting spirit to protect the hotels they work in and the staff they employ.”

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