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Office furniture designed to motivate and inspire

Interview - March 24, 2023

Employee motivation stems from many sources, with one being the space and surroundings where they work. In that sense, office furniture can play an important role, which is why RF Yamakawa strives to create office furniture designed to inspire and motivate employees. Indeed, creating aesthetically pleasing, comfortable and functional furniture is all part of Yamakawa’s mission: to provide furniture as a solution


Can you give us a brief introduction to your company? What do you believe to be your core strengths and competencies that set you apart?

Our core competencies are designing, cost performance and functionality. These three elements are the most important for us. Usually, when designing a product, the cost may be higher. This is the case for some top brands. However, I do not believe that this is the right way to reach the customer. I want a lot of customers to use our furniture, so I want to keep the costs as low as possible. That way they can afford to buy our products and see that when compared to others, our products are more useful and better designed. That is our motto. That is the only way to survive in this red ocean market. Otherwise, if we do the same things as other companies, it could be difficult for us. It is a very hard market to compete in.

Our target market is actually chusho kigyos. We ourselves are a small company. In Japan around 95% of companies are chusho kigyos. I want them to use our products. We are not really targeting big companies such as famous car companies or electric product companies. Japanese small companies have very limited budgets to buy office furniture. Usually they buy highly-durable steel furniture, which I myself do not really like. That is why we do not have steel desks. If a worker comes to the office, and you have gray steel furniture, I do not think they will feel inspired to work there. They will be a little more motivated to work for a company if the furniture is more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing. This Western style comes from the US and Europe. Japan was behind when it came to office furniture. However, Japan is now catching up. That is why I want our offices to be clean and nicely designed.


It is interesting to hear you describe the office furniture market as a red ocean. It is hard to argue that point, However, there have been some interesting waves recently, critically in how working styles have changed with the popularization of teleworking. As we enter this post-Covid era where flexible working is becoming more normalized, what impact will this change in work style have for your business in terms of sales and in terms of design?

This situation is actually better for our company, as we are making new-style furniture, and adjusting our products to these new environments. This means that companies will buy more of our products. In Japan, the working style has changed a lot in the past 20 years. Before, you were given a personal desk and you had to sit in the same seat every day. Around ten years ago, a free seating style began to become popular. People did not want to sit in the same seat every day. Also, the company management did not want to give a seat to the workers who did not come to the office every day. For example, sales people work outside most of the day and only return to the office for one hour or so. Using that space is very mottainai. That was why they introduced the free seating system. Companies also needed public space for their employees to relax.

Covid was a big disadvantage for the free seating system. Covid used to be an unknown disease. If you sat in one seat, and another person sat in that seat after you, they may have got infected. Therefore, during Covid, free seating was not recommended, as people were worried that they would catch Covid. When the emergency decree came out, everyone wanted to work from home. Of course, our company also did teleworking. However, now everyone is coming to the office, as it is more efficient.

We recently carried out a survey after teleworking ended. I wanted to ask our employees which working style was better for them. There were many good aspects regarding teleworking. However, there were also some bad aspects too. One of the bad aspects of teleworking was communication problems. Even though we used Microsoft Teams for communicating, certain tasks need to be done face-to-face. Workers also need to talk to each other about other things not related to work. After a few months, we started to return to the office again. Also, as we produce office furniture, every day our employees sit in the best chairs. When you work at your house, the chairs may not be as comfortable for working in, especially when you are working eight or more hours per day. Some people may even sit on their bed when they are working. I do not think that is a good location for work. Those were some of the reasons why our employees wanted to return to the office to work.


Do you think that the working culture in Japan will meaningfully change because of the Covid pandemic?

It is a hybrid system. Teleworking is used in specific situations. Companies have a choice, whether to fully use teleworking or use it part of the time. Companies are mixing its use. However, Japanese people like to come to work, and do not like the distractions of working at home. For example, they may watch YouTube when they are working from home. Peoples’ minds are not very strong. They cannot focus and they can get distracted easily. Western people come to work and focus, and then after work they can forget about it. However, it is very difficult for Japanese people to instantly change their mindset.


An interesting element is the small size of the apartments in Japan. We are very curious as to how your original products can help in that regard, especially the Lil series, which we understand is a compact desk and shelf that has casters, so that it can be moved to where it is most convenient in your home to make the best use of your space. Could you introduce us to this series of original products, and how else your designs cater to limited at home working space?

The Lil series was originally designed for tailored working purposes. It is a little lower than a normal desk as it is designed for people working from home that may be sitting on a bed or on a couch, as they do not have a regular chair. There are no other products that are that height, so that is why we chose that height. We also wanted to make it light, as once you finish using it, you can move it to another area in the room. We installed casters so that it is easy to move. The home and office are very different. I wanted it to feel more like home than the office. If you brought that desk into the office, it would not be suitable.


Could you elaborate on a product of yours that has the ability to interchange or adapt? We often see that desks can now be moved or can be changed to standing desks, for example. Could you tell us how you are integrating added functionality in a traditional product to make it more adaptable for the user’s needs as they change?

At first, we were not doing innovative things. Big companies invest a lot into innovating their products. Usually this comes from the US from companies, and Japanese companies then follow suit. Usually when it comes to innovation, the big companies buy into them first. Our target market is chusho kigyos, and they do not require these innovations at first. They require more of the older style of office furniture. However, as new styles of working are becoming more and more familiar, we will start investing in more innovative products. We have limited resources, so we have to focus on our targets. For example, machining is not one of our main strengths. Other companies may do their own machining or buy parts from other companies.

You talked about the challenges when it comes to designing for bigger companies. We are really curious to hear about your unique design aesthetic. You mentioned three key factors being cost performance, design and functionality. You also mentioned warmth and motivation in contrast to big steel heavy structures, that “wood is more motivating than steel”. Can you tell us a little more about your design concept, and how you blend these three elements? What makes a piece of office furniture specifically “RF Yamakawa”?

We believe that furniture is a solution for people. We want to make people’s working life better. That is the concept that we think about. Making the furniture big or making it small all comes from this concept. For example, when we consider the height of a table, we survey people of different heights to see what is best for them. We also have to consider the average height of Japanese people. We apply these standards when we are designing our furniture.


How do you create those touch points with your end users, and how do you get feedback from them? What system do you have in place, besides surveys?

I think that our sales figures always tell us if our customers like our furniture or not. We are a maker brand. However, we do not do direct sales very often. Rather, we have resellers, who give us feedback on our products. It can be difficult to listen to the direct voice of the user. That is one of our challenges. However, we do some direct business and receive feedback from those users. 

Also, we started a total solutions business in which we design offices, and not just furniture. We started that business as a lot of our end-user clients wanted us to provide more services, such as making roofs or partitions or doing electrical work etc. We told them we were sorry and that we only sold furniture. However, as the demand grew, we started to provide those services to our clients. That shift improved our business.

Before, we only wanted to make furniture. We did not consider where that furniture would be put. However, once we started our office design business, furniture coordination and the layout of the office became important. That resulted in a big shift in our design concepts. We began to consider what combinations of furniture would be best for offices. Before that, we only considered how nice our furniture looked.


I like the way you describe your business as being service based. We know that you have your new business in nursing care facilities. It is limited in scope as it is still new. We are very curious about how you translated your experience from your interior design business to nursing care facilities.

We did not just decide to do the nursing business. We were asked to do it. We originally had our nursing dining table. That was how it started. At the beginning, we did not have a lot of information as we were new to that business. We listened very carefully to the needs of our clients, so that we could provide the best solutions to them. We also have some partners. It was important to choose partners who had experience in the field.


Earlier, you described furniture as being a solution and you told us that this is your company’s core guiding concept. We want to ask you about your Moto antiviral desk that is especially suited for shared spaces and coworking spaces, but also for schools, libraries and other public areas. Can you tell us a little more about the Moto, but also the profile of the customer that you believe would benefit most from this kind of product?

Since we also sell a lot of furniture to interior design companies, we are asked to make custom orders of certain lengths and sizes. However, our main products are mass produced. Sometimes, our stock could not meet the needs, so we considered designing semi-custom furniture and then adjusting the size of our market needs. While it is a little more expensive that way, we wanted to be able to meet the needs of the market. That was when we made the Moto series. Its price is much higher than our current mass-produced products, so we wanted to make it much more value-added. At the time we were developing that furniture, Covid had just started. Surface material companies had antivirus materials. However, they did not have antiviral material. When the antiviral material was created, we integrated it into our product. That way, there was a reason to sell this product at a higher price. Customers are very smart, so the reasons for higher prices must be explained to them. Our business is more catalog-based rather than face-to-face. Therefore, we need to write down why this product is different from others. That is the challenge when developing a product. We need to increase its functionality, so that it can be differentiated from other products.


We are really curious to hear about your experience at exhibitions and how your designs and products are received overseas. Can you tell us more about the importance of these exhibitions for developing your brand overseas, and what types of products are you trying to showcase to the international market?

First of all, our overseas business is a little different from our main business. Our overseas business is focused more on interior accessories, for which we use individual designers. Rather than designing in house, we outsource our designing. For example, the designer of our umbrella stand, Naoki Terada, is now the president of the internal office in Japan. Before he took that position, he only had a design office. We asked him to design an umbrella stand for us, and we then developed that product. At that time, we did a lot of small interior accessories.

Furniture is big and therefore exporting costs are high. With our interior accessories, we mainly target Europe and the US. These areas are far from where we produce our products and they already have their own big players in the market there. That is why we only target these areas with our smaller products. We have had overseas exhibitions in Germany, and the US, as well as the UK. These are greater opportunities for us, as buyers from all over the world came over to see our products. At first, we did not have any sales, However, after conversations with buyers, we chose the right pricing for our products. We learned a lot. One company named The Container Store, a very famous storage product store which is very big in the US, started to buy from us. That was the start of our overseas business. However, products have a short lifespan. Also, Covid impacted our overseas business in the last three years. That is why our overseas sales are lower at this time. With that being said, we do not sell our larger products overseas. We only sell office accessories.


Do you have the ambition to expand your overseas sales to include your larger office furniture?

Yes, we do. In the future, the domestic market in Japan will shrink due to Japan’s aging demographic. Our main target will be Europe and the US. 


Could you give us an insight into why the European or the American user really appreciates that Japanese aesthetic and functionality?

I think they appreciate the simple functions. However, the cultures are all different. For example, when you consider the umbrella stand, American people seldom use umbrellas. They prefer to use waterproof jackets. That’s why the umbrella stand is not sold in the US. However, we had big sales for this product in the UK and other European countries.

Our shoe horn is one of our most successful interior products. It was designed more than ten years ago, but is still one of our best-selling products. Before it was designed, we pointed out that there were no free-standing shoe horns in the market. We spoke with an Italian designer and we made our free-standing shoe horn. When we put our shoe horn on the market, we sold many of them. Before, there were almost no JPY 5000 shoe horns in the market. We actually changed the market with our designed shoe horn with its standing function. In Japan, people take off their shoes at entrances. The entrance is the place you will most likely be seen. Before, the shoe horns were plastic. Even good-looking entrances had these plastic shoe horns, which could distract people. That was why we changed it to being an interior product.


Are you going to continue to focus on these interior design products, and if so, what have you identified as your next development?

I can only say that the product will be one that is not identified as an interior design product. We want to make it into an interior product. We focus on finding these kinds of products. However, they are not easy to find.


Are you open to collaboration with designers and partners from Europe and the US who can help you create products that are tailored to those specific markets?

Yes, we are. Our company is only located in Japan. In Italy and the US, we only have a few people. As such, we do not do marketing research in those areas. Our products come from the Japanese point of view. However, if we go abroad with higher intentions, marketing research will be very important.


Could you elaborate on what kinds of collaborators you are searching for, whether that be international designers, or resellers such as the Container Store very famous storage product store company you mentioned in the US, or other manufacturers that could help mitigate some of the issues of making your products in Asia and then sending them to Europe? What type of collaborators are you looking for?

We would consider any kind of collaborators. We have limited resources, so any collaboration would be very welcomed. Manufacturing is very limited right now. It mainly comes from China. However, we are not familiar with China and do not know what the situation will be like there in the future. That would be a risk for us. That is why we are trying to find opportunities in other countries when it comes to manufacturing.

At this moment China has a lot of power, and machining investment is especially booming there right now. A lot of Chinese manufacturers have new machines. However, other countries do not have as much power to invest in, and also have very limited resources to manufacture from. What we can ask of those countries is limited, and advanced products that are made in China are still the best. They are even better than Japan, as the machinery in Japanese factories is old, even though it is very well maintained. The capacity is also less as the factories in Japan are smaller than the factories in China.


You have been president of this company for almost two years. In the distant future, when you pass the baton on to the next generation, do you have a personal goal or ambition that you would like to have accomplished?

I want our company to provide solutions. People need help, and we want to help. It is part of our company policy to make people happy. That not only applies to our customers, but also our manufacturers and suppliers as well. We want to be able to relate to people. That is the purpose of our business, and it will never change.