Nothing brings out the best in business like collaboration, competition and community. Rare is the success story that falls on one person’s shoulders; wins in the corporate world are almost always a team effort, and learning – from peers and the wider business community – is an ongoing journey.
The higher up the ladder one climbs, however, the more isolated one can feel. It can be tough to find someone to confide in when you’re in charge of a trillion dollar turnover, for instance.
It was with this conundrum in mind that CorporateConnections Japan was established. According to National Director Taichi Ito, there’s a lot of truth to the old saying that it’s lonely at the top.
Leaders can meet people facing similar issues and share – and hopefully solve – their problems.
"After a year or two of success, business owners often find they’re facing the kind of challenges they can’t discuss with their family or even people within the company," Ito tells The CEO Magazine.
"And that’s what CorporateConnections, as a platform, is all about. Leaders can meet people facing similar issues and share – and hopefully solve – their problems."
As a young man at the beginning of his career, Ito paid particular attention to his father’s lumber business. "There was an expectation that, as the eldest son, I would take over from my father," he says.
The more Ito learned about the lumber business, the more he came to realize how isolated his father felt when it came to making big decisions. "It was struggle after struggle," Ito says.
"It turned out he’d been thinking about shutting down the business for 10 years, but no-one knew what was on his mind because he felt he didn’t have anyone to share it with. In fact, I found all this out from his friends."
Sadly, Ito’s father passed away before any transition could begin. "I never took over the family business, but I very much had an entrepreneurial spirit in my mind, so I started my own company."
Determined not to find himself isolated like his father, Ito sought like-minded businesspeople with whom he could share his thoughts. What he established was CorporateConnections Japan, a way for executives to confer and connect beyond the walls of their daily lives.
"I’m all about supporting Japanese SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises], and the purpose of CorporateConnections is to help businesses to grow," he says.
"But at the same time, we help each other face challenges and manage the inevitable anxiety that arises from running a business."
Through a program known as Forum, CorporateConnections Japan members can build confidence and relationships to the point where they’re comfortable sharing their problems. Ito says Forum is shrouded by a cone of silence.
"Whatever’s talked about inside Forum stays in Forum," he says. "It’s a secret place where members can open their hearts and share not only business challenges, but personal ones as well. If my father had been a member, he may have found a way to keep the business going."
The CorporateConnections concept began in the United States, but expanded internationally in 2018.
"Japan was the first country to join," Ito says. "Now, we’re in 25 countries with 900 companies represented."
Domestically, CorporateConnections only has a presence in Tokyo, but Ito says he’d like to extend the community into major cities such as Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka over the next five years.
Through sharing both challenges and good times, members become lifelong friends.
"It’s a franchise business, and we recently sold three locations: two in Tokyo and one in Fukuoka, so already we’re growing," he says.
While a small membership can be ideal for the kind of confidence CorporateConnections thrives on, at the same time Ito believes a broader base can only be a good thing. There’s also a strict set of qualifiers for membership: for starters, a company has to bring in US$5 million or more per year to join.
"Each chapter must have a minimum of 15 members, and so far we have 33 companies on board including leading firms from each industry. By spring, we’ll have more than doubled that."
Ito’s ultimate goal is to grow CorporateConnections Japan to include 1,900 companies over the next decade – a number that he says represents one percent of eligible companies. "Right now, it seems like a very small community, and some members prefer that. But we’ll see exponential growth as time goes on."
CorporateConnections Japan’s fearlessness in the face of a challenge was put to the ultimate test in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the country.
"Suddenly there was this situation where no one wanted to meet in person, but everyone wanted to discuss how to handle the pandemic within their CorporateConnections community."
Japan was one of the first countries to return to in-person meetings, and CorporateConnections’ members implored the organization to follow suit.
There’s a lot to not appreciate about the COVID-19 pandemic, but I do appreciate that it helped us become a stronger service and better provide for our people.
"We took the risk and brought back our in-person meetings," he says. "And our members have thrived, being able to talk through how best to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the reason we survived was because of those in-person meetings."
As the world returns to normalcy, Ito says there’s potential for cross-talk between country chapters of CorporateConnections.
"My experience and expertise meant that I was able to start CorporateConnections Singapore, and a business partner of mine has great access to the local network there," he says.
"It’s a smaller market than Japan, but it’s a business hub in APAC, and the beauty of CorporateConnections is that there’s that global access to so many other countries."
From Singapore, Ito envisions a branching pathway to countries such as Vietnam, Hong Kong and Cambodia, which have recently joined the CorporateConnections family. "The challenge is always reaching out to the top five percent," he says. "The good thing is, we’re never alone."
Ito is quick to point out that the nature of CorporateConnections’ work isn’t transactional.
"Growing a business is inherently transactional, but solving a problem, overcoming a challenge… that’s transformational. Peer-to-peer support has the potential to transform, especially when you’re working with big bosses," he says.
While CorporateConnections Japan is still a new player on the scene, Ito plans to expand and promote its presence in the months to come.
"People know the Rotary Club or the Lions Club, but they don’t know CorporateConnections – yet," he says.
"We’ll be actively promoting ourselves, and the secret weapon is we have people who understand what we’re doing, who feel that this is the right community for them. That’s a very powerful tool, particularly at the level at which those people operate."
Such is the effectiveness of the CorporateConnections Japan model that the group enjoys a 96 percent retention rate.
"That’s an amazing number, particularly compared to other countries," he says. "Worldwide, CorporateConnections is something like 80 percent-plus, but Japan’s higher number means members are satisfied. They enjoy being part of the community we’ve built.
"There’s a lot to not appreciate about the COVID-19 pandemic, but I do appreciate that it helped us become a stronger service and better provide for our people."
Peer-to-peer support has the potential to transform, especially when you’re working with big bosses.
The concept may not be entirely original, but Ito says CorporateConnections stands apart from peers such as the Entrepreneur Organization and Rotary Club because of the open exchange of business and personal challenges.
"The big difference is not many organizations can talk about both," he says. "We actively encourage business exchanges, but having fun together is a huge part of our community."
Many members have reached a level of remuneration that they own expensive cars, boats and multiple houses, something many bond over. "They’re making friends not just with like-minded people, but those with similar means," he says.
"Members enjoy going out together because they’re used to expensive restaurants, they’ll go out on the weekend and have parties on yachts. They can share those experiences but they also know what it’s like to have the pressures at work. Through sharing both challenges and good times, members become lifelong friends."
Ito himself remains active in the community despite his operational responsibilities.
"I control the franchisees, I control the directors, a lot of people work for me, but I still go to the chapter meetings," he says. "I’ll help members connect because I know exactly what they do and what they’re looking for. I meet with new members to help them get comfortable."
The most important part of his job, Ito says, is listening to his members.
"If time allows, I’m always up for a one-on-one communication session," he says. "It’s rare to have such direct access to those at the top of the business world, and my life is better for being surrounded by such great people. It has changed my life quite a bit."
We don’t just provide business opportunities, we help create emotional bonds and build meaningful relationships.
The Japanese business landscape is tough, filled with companies of all sizes working hard to get the best result. There’s not much room for candid conversations in a world of such closely guarded secrets, particularly at the executive level, but CorporateConnections Japan is proving that even the most entrenched society can be transformed through human connection.
"Yes, we’re a business, and we’re a profitable one, but that’s not what we’re all about," Ito says. "We are a platform for community leaders to bring about meaningful change, whether that’s for their businesses or in their personal lives."
And it’s that part that Ito believes is the key to making the whole thing work.
"We don’t just provide business opportunities, we help create emotional bonds and build meaningful relationships," he says. "We are a family."
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