Takahashi Kimiko: an exceptional woman CEO in the hearing aid industry in Japan

Shudensha group is a hearing aid dispenser network in Yamagata and Fukushima prefectures. CEO Takahashi Kimiko is not only a hearing aid technician and businesswoman, but also board member of The Japan Hearing Dispensers Association (JHIDA), Vice-president of the Tohoku region and Sales Ethics Committee Chairperson of the JHIDA. Takahashi told us about her business policy and her suggestions to the industry from her point of view as a businesswoman.

Shudensha Group has five stores named Shudensha in Yamagata and three named Mimi Plaza in Fukushima. They are all directly managed by Takahashi, as part of the company established by her father. She joined the company and became a hearing aid technician, and then got married and completed a diploma, to become an SME management consultant in Tokyo. Her experience as a consultant held her in good stead when she became a top executive. Takahashi came back to the company in 1998 in a consultant capacity. She changed the name of the stores in Fukushima, created a logo, a concept and a visual identity, which became the basis for the current company, and became CEO in 2005.

Valuing work-life balance to keep competent hearing aid technicians

In 2010, Takahashi was awarded a special prize in the women entrepreneur category for “The 1st business innovation award 2010”, granted by The Association of Management Consultants in Japan, thanks to her article published in 2009 in a business magazine. In February 2013, she was invited as a panelist to present Shudensha’s case in a symposium entitled “Work-life balance in Japan in comparison with other countries” organized by the Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office of the Japanese Government and International Women’s Education Association of Japan.

People without children and men also need to ensure a work-life balance, valuing their free time, but without cutting their productivity… Takahashi made a decision to go in this direction when a skilled hearing aid technician left the company to have her child, leaving an open position that was very difficult to fill. “You need ten years to become a full-fledged hearing aid technician. My question was what to do to keep full-fledged hearing aid technicians”, says Takahashi. She therefore went to her female employees to understand the reasons why they would leave company (difficulty in keeping a balance between raising their children and work, difficulty being promoted, etc.). The strategy adopted was to offer women more than one year of maternity leave, depending on each situation. This decision was based on the case of an employee working more than forty years in the company with maternity leave during the time of the former CEO, and on Takahashi’s own experience as a working mother. This employee is now 66 years old and is still working in the company as a hearing aid technician. She was reemployed in the company after reaching retirement age.

Takahashi also created a part-time working system and paternity leave for fathers. “We need a working system appropriate for each person’s situation,” explains Takahashi. This enhances team work and people can fill in for one another. Staff learn to do several tasks at the same time, and we were able to improve efficiency.

“I had to change staff perceptions. One of the initiatives was to leave work on time and that is why I leave the office the earliest.” Takahashi fixed clear targets for the quantity of hearing devices to sell and target amounts of other sales, and a bonus scheme based on sales was set up. Before, salaries at Shudensha were calculated only by position and age, in the traditional Japanese way. While respecting this system, Takahashi added the bonus system taking performance into account, which helped to boost employee motivation.

When a company has a reputation for valuing the work-life balance, competent professionals are more likely to join the company. “Word of mouth is more efficient than a recruitment ad costing several million Yen per year, and the benefits made in the long term by competent people are huge,” Takahashi explains in her article.

Importance of women’s points of view

Very few women are hearing aid technicians and entrepreneurs in Japan. When Takahashi became a board member of the JHIDA, she was the only woman among thirty members. “I don’t feel like that anymore, but at that time, I got the impression that it was a typical male-dominated world.” She believes that if women leaders in the industry exchange their ideas more, new momentum can be created. “Then, hearing aids will be more customer-friendly products. Women can think about their customer’s feelings and have ideas from the customer’s point of view. In our area, most customers are elderly people who are mature consumers. Therefore services and techniques of a higher level are expected from us. With a women’s flexible point of view and ideas, I hope to develop the hearing aid industry to offer more satisfaction to customers.”

Hanyu Noriko, editor in chief of Audio Infos Japan

Photos: H.N.