A company committed to bringing creative ideas to life through meticulous craftsmanship, Union Corporation has established itself as Japan’s premier provider of door handles since it was founded more than 60 years ago.
Since World War II ended, Japan has developed an excellent international reputation for its manufacturing based upon attention to detail, ingenuity and design, which is also known as monozukuri. As a specialized manufacturer of architectural components, what is your take on Japanese monozukuri?
Our company, specializing in door handles, was officially established in 1958. We have a constant market because customers, including construction and building companies, seek our products. Although door handles may seem simple, the indispensability of our products gave rise to the founding of our company. We have built the reputation as being the world’s first hardware manufacturer specializing in door handles. Thirty years after our establishment, our business continued to thrive due to the country’s huge economic growth. However, the bubble economy stalled that momentum and affected many Japanese companies. Firms struggled to find ways to overcome that economic crisis. We had to restructure our business model which brought forth our company’s new philosophy called Artware. Artware is a keyword that denotes aesthetic sense, craftsmanship and design that resonates in the hearts of the customers. It is an original concept by our company, cultivated since our founding, that fuses the spirit of art and hardware as well as our commitment to these concepts. We give more emphasis on custom-made products than other companies. The company shifted from mass production into more unique and creative product designs. A simple door handle came out to be an innovative form of art piece. That new philosophy marked the turning point for our business and propelled us to reach new horizons.
Japan is the first super-aging society where 28% of its population is over 65. By 2035, this trend is expected to continue and more than a third of the people will be older than 65. Nevertheless, Italy, Germany, Sweden and Korea will follow suit in the years to come. As a company specializing in door handles with your Artware concept, how are you adapting your technologies for ease of use of your products for the aging society?
I just turned 75 yesterday, taking another step into that aging society. Another strong point of our company is always having products in stock and rapidly responding to our customers' needs. In cases where we do not have a specific product on hand, we can quickly develop and provide that product to our customers on time. Timely delivery also defines Union Corporation as we aim to satisfy the wide range of our customers’ needs and demands. Aside from employing the best, young personnel to overcome the problem of the aging society, we have been implementing different techniques like AI, digitalization and various types of software for a better product lineup. These young people are highly capable of designing as well as making the development of products easier and faster. The company is fabless, except for our production in China. We propose the designs and outsource the production to other companies. This approach gives us an advantage in speed and flexibility because of the shortened production time and on-time delivery. Technology helps the gemba or production site because most of the handles have to be user-friendly and equipped with safety measures. We have a patent for handles that have been developed to optimize ease and speed of installation for workers. User-friendly handles are needed to promote pleasant encounters between people and the rooms they use, including difficult-to-reach areas. The initiatives I have mentioned have already been set, but we are not stopping halfway. We plan to pursue other aspects such as robotization or automation of our processes to contribute to the aging society to some extent.
During COVID, the construction sector may be more impacted than others because commercial facilities and plant facilities were paused or no longer built; on the other hand, we saw the government’s relief packages and public spending programs increase like the building of more hostels and public infrastructures. What has been the impact of COVID on your business, and what long-term readjustment has it served to change for your business?
The Coronavirus situation has positively affected our company. When most of our design and sales personnel started teleworking, we realized that it was effective and practical. Before the pandemic, our salesmen had to go to the production site two or three times in order to talk to the customers face-to-face. Now, teleworking has identified a new perspective of conducting our business that saves resources and time and has opened other doors for our company.
On a positive note, we obtained promising business opportunities when we started communicating with some architects outside Japan through Facebook. Through our virtual showroom expo, we can share our product lineup and provide information about our products online. We have not thought about this before COVID, so we used the conventional sales method of dispatching people all over the country, which usually required transportation, accommodation and other travel fees.
The COP26 that occurred in November last year instituted a roadmap for the Paris Agreement in which countries will be held accountable for their ability to deliver carbon-neutral targets. What components or products are you offering to cater for SDGs?
We have been working on several initiatives towards becoming carbon-neutral. The catalogs we give out to our customers become thicker each time because we introduce new products every year. We collect those previously distributed catalogs to be recycled, which may be deemed as a small thing but can eventually be a significant contribution to SDGs. We utilize a variety of materials such as stainless, brass and cast iron which are long-lasting. Depending on the life cycle of the building, 50 to 100 years on average, our products maintain their quality. For reconstructions, we collect used handles to be refurbished or re-casted to a new kind of door handles at our production sites. The redesigning process is highly fitting because the old models from decades ago are outdated and in need of improved features. We work together with OEM companies in seeking and utilizing alternative sources of energy like propane gas which is believed to be more environmentally-friendly than crude oil. Although it is a small part of our business, we purchase used baseball bats from Mizuno - a sports equipment company to be recycled and used in our wooden door handles and lever handles. There were many instances where we repurposed products from our clients instead of disposing of them.
Your brand is split into three different sub-brands: Archism series (architectural hardware), Modelize series (residential products) and Hu-Land Scape (public spaces). Which of these brands is your main focus, and which products are you looking to increase sales in the future?
Our major product lineup is our high-quality door and lever handles, including fire extinguisher cases. We have an extensive list of products related to that segment. Folding doors are widely used in America, but Japan has been behind in utilizing them. When we introduced folding doors to Japan, Japanese developers rejected them because the dimensions they provided used a different system of measurement. We, therefore, pursued that segment using Japanese standards. In doing so, interested developers started to pour in. Even though we could not obtain a patent for our fire extinguisher cases because of security requirements, we still have been successful to an extent.
Our founder, Ichiro Tateno, emphasized the importance of promptly procuring patents as we continue to create and develop original products from scratch. The idea beyond selling a product is the spirit of persisting in developing exceptional products for the betterment of people's lives. We want to constantly challenge ourselves to push this concept to its limits. Patents protect us from Chinese competitors who can easily replicate products. While products that have just been introduced at an expo can be easily copied by other manufacturers, we have a more laid-back attitude towards that because we do not really mind if our products are copied. I think it can be a way for the company to gain more attention and become more famous. We already have our designs posted on our homepage anyway.
Expo 2025 with the theme "Designing for the Future Society" will be held in Osaka and geared towards the international community. In anticipation of this global audience, what strategies are you implementing to appeal to the international community in three years’ time?
We are looking at touchless motion sensor door handles, which is a concept spurred by the global pandemic. Since its advent, touching door handles has been considered as one of the main ways the virus spreads. We have been working on unique approaches like antibacterial, sanitized and surface treatments for door handles. These are the new technologies that we hope to present for the expo in 2025; it will be a grand event for the whole of Osaka.
In developing that technology, what role would co-creation play? Are you looking for partners, perhaps overseas, that would help you develop touchless door handles?
Having a fabless production means the need to cooperate with some external individuals, engineers or organizations to mutually come up with better solutions. We have been thinking about a number of co-creation and research endeavors with foreign companies and architectural institutes. From an R&D point of view, we welcome architects, designers, engineers and others to develop improved and unique products. We have been in this business for 65 years, and we truly believe that there is a way to grow with affiliates around the globe. Japanese designers have their way, approach and standards. Overseas companies, however, may hold something original or beyond what we have here in Japan, and they can give us insight into their thought about our local architectural product lineup. That is a great way to grow. We can reach out to new circles and domains that we have never imagined, like design or fashion. I think in the next years to come we can keep on expanding to uncharted business areas.
Our company's future sales will depend on where there is a growing demand for new buildings. Therefore, we are targeting emerging economies or developing countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and even Africa. The major reason for establishing our Chinese factory in 2004 is the transfer fees. We only began to benefit from that factory in the last two or three years. Any place with an infrastructure boom will be a prospective local manufacturing location for Union to eliminate the cost of transport fees and minimize production costs.
Imagine we come back for your 70th anniversary and have this interview all over again. What would you like to tell us? What are your dreams for this company? What goals would you like to have accomplished by then?
I think ambition drives the growth of the company. To keep at it, I need to stay energetic and healthy. We have a 90% market share in the domestic market. There is no general construction company in Japan that is not familiar with Union Corporation. Since we want to achieve similar success in the foreign markets, we want to improve our brand awareness. The dream is that our door handles will be installed more in the US and Europe.