Photo/IllutrationRank Up Co. President Yumiko Iwasaki, left, and her employees have brought their children to work during the kids’ summer holidays. (Mana Takahashi)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

In a rare scene for a Japanese workplace, Yumiko Iwasaki picked up her bag at slightly past 5 p.m. and left her seat, calling it a day.

“I’m going,” the 50-year-old president of cosmetics maker Rank Up Co. said in a voice that reverberated across the floor.

“See you,” her employees replied.

In balancing her home and work life, Iwasaki dropped by a supermarket to buy prepared food products. Her fourth-grade son was expected to be back from a lesson he was taking just around the time she was arriving home from work.

Iwasaki founded Rank Up in 2005. Women account for more than 90 percent of the company's work force of 51, with half of them raising children. Rank Up, which is almost free of overtime hours, has been posting strong results, with revenues growing for 12 years in a row.

Iwasaki has put as much passion into reducing working hours as into product development.

The company's designated working hours end at 5:30 p.m., but workers are allowed to leave at 5 p.m. if they have done their day’s work. The company’s full-time work force of 34, except those with reduced working hours, put in only about 10 overtime hours per head a month.

Every six months, company officials scrutinize the duties and time requirements of all workers and review the duties of those with long overtime hours.

Arguments must be summarized on a single sheet of A4-size paper. Meetings must end in 30 minutes. Call center services, shipments and other duties are contracted out.

Iwasaki served until 13 years ago as a director on the board of a startup ad agency, where extremely long working hours were the norm. Many of the workers there caught the last train of the day to go home.

The phrase “work-life balance” was an anathema to Iwasaki herself.

“Want to enjoy both work and private life? Well, that’s an excuse for workers with poor sales records,” she said she thought at the time.

Iwasaki was in her early 30s when she was selected to serve as the sales director. She had a sense of both mission and fulfillment about her work.

But workers never stayed long with the company and left in three years at the longest. Competent women complained, as they left, that they could never get married or have children as long as they worked for the company.

Iwasaki did not dare to ask them to stay. Marriage could somehow be tolerated, but childbirth was out of the question. Employees who could not work overtime there were not considered part of the work force.

“I even thought it would be a bit of a bother if somebody asked to return to work after taking child-care leave,” Iwasaki said. “I was using women and discarding them after use.”

Iwasaki returned to her senses when the company’s founding members in administrative positions resigned en masse.

“Workers are not machines,” she said she realized at the time. “You can never continue living a life like this, whether you are a man or a woman.”

Iwasaki attempted to reduce overtime hours in hopes of changing the culture of the company, but the company president then asked her, “What are you going to do if sales figures drop because you no longer work extra hours?”

Iwasaki was at the end of her tether. She thought to herself, “It would be easier to set up a company of my own than to change this existing one.”

Over-demanding work had roughened Iwasaki's skin. She teamed up with a subordinate from the ad agency to set up Rank Up with an ambition to make and market cosmetic products that she would want to use herself.

Iwasaki had a baby at 41 and returned to work in three months. Extended-hours child care was available only through 7:30 p.m. She felt guilty as she left before her employees, who were still working overtime.

Her husband was so busy with his job that he could not take enough housework upon himself, so once she was back home, she felt she was on a roller coaster until she put her son to bed. She fell ill from sleep deprivation because her son cried at night.

She took the plunge and called out to her employees, “Let’s stop doing overtime and leave the office at a set time.”

Her rationale was as follows: if nobody put in overtime, workers raising children would no longer stand out as special cases. The rest of the work force would no longer feel that they were coming under more of a burden because of the working mothers.

Iwasaki had realized that, to allow women to stay long with a workplace, it was essential to make sure that a worker is not disadvantaged in terms of her career track just because she has a child to raise.

She believed that her employees would follow her if only she developed a worker-friendly system. What lay ahead, however, was a “dark age,” for both Iwasaki and her workers.

ENTREPRENEURSHIP NOT THE END OF IT

“That was a dark age,” said Yoshimi Kondo, a worker with Rank Up’s public relations department, in referring to the company’s atmosphere until about five years ago.

Iwasaki, as president, insisted on deciding everything on her own.

When employees prepared a booklet for club members, Iwasaki called for changes in all details, including the text, font colors, font types and even the number of exclamation marks. On one occasion, Iwasaki overturned, at the last moment, a proposal for an event for club members.

Her employees grumbled to each other when they got together in a lounge. And that did not go unnoticed by Iwasaki.

“The presence of the lounge horrified me,” she said. “I thought that everybody in there was probably speaking ill of me.”

The outcome of a satisfaction survey, taken of Rank Up’s employees in 2012, left Iwasaki speechless.

Only 11 percent of the workers said they believed that the company was allowing them to weigh in on decision-making. Nobody said they believed that employees were happy coming to work.

Iwasaki proposed organizing a field day to foster a sense of solidarity, but she only got the cold shoulder from her workers.

A two-night, three-day training camp was held for Rank Up’s employees around that time. The subject of discussions on the final day was, “What can we do for the company?” Iwasaki was not there.

The employees' frustration finally bubbled over.

“I don’t see any objective in working for this company,” one said.

“How can I make a contribution at a time when I am given no esteem?”

An instructor attending the training camp contacted Iwasaki, who was in the company office, and asked her to come and join them. She then realized once again how her employees were feeling.

She believed her employees would be happy if only she paid them reasonable wages and lowered the hurdles for taking days off from work. She was too much obsessed with the idea that she was responsible for earning the wages for her workers.

As it turned out, her company was certainly free of overtime hours, but it also lacked a sense of fulfillment.

“I was a failure as a corporate manager,” Iwasaki said she thought. “I was the one who had to change.”

She rethought her philosophy. This time around, her focus was on the word “challenge.”

“We will continue to be a challenger in order to remain the company of choice,” her new statement said.

Employees grumbled, sick of yet another abrupt gesture. Undaunted, Iwasaki spoke of her thoughts over and over again during morning meetings and training sessions.

Rank Up’s performance was ever growing, thanks to a smash hit of its “maNara Hot Cleansing Gel,” a makeup remover.

The product feels warm and gentle on the skin when applied to the face. That quality caught on with women, and the product has sold more than 10 million units in total.

The company’s revenues have grown for 12 consecutive years, with its annual proceeds topping 10 billion yen ($89 million) last year.

Despite the company's success, Iwasaki wanted to bring out something from her employees that was not just about complacency with the status quo.

As proposals for new products gradually began coming up, Iwasaki repressed an urge to meddle. There were proposals about products that could help solve problems recognized by those who had children to care for.

Iwasaki stopped asking meticulous questions about workers’ proposals for events to be held for clients.

“Just give it a try,” she acquired the habit of saying.

“That allowed the individual workers to feel more self-confident,” Kondo said.

This past summer, children on their summer vacations were seen doing homework or reading books beside their mothers who were working in the company’s office.

Ai Nishioka, head of the overseas operations department, has a husband posted on an assignment away from her family and two children attending a day-care center. She leaves her children in Iwasaki’s care whenever she goes on a business trip.

“I felt sorry and embarrassed at first, but that’s a very big help for me,” Nishioka said.

A field day was held in mid-September at the suggestion of employees who know about the company’s “dark age.” The event livened up as participants played tug of war and engaged in a scavenger hunt.

Apparently the most content was Iwasaki, who had been concerned, until immediately before, about the number of participants.

“I was so happy, above all things, that employees came up with the idea for this event,” she said. “Running a race at the behest of the president would only have amounted to mere abuse of authority.”

Iwasaki looked misty-eyed as she said this, smiling.