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Life is sweet right now for French national Jerome Chouchan, and it’s not just because he is surrounded by chocolate every day.
Chouchan heads the Asia Pacific (APAC) division of one of the world’s leading luxury chocolate brands and his book “Target: Business Wisdom from the Ancient Japanese Martial Art of Kyūdō” has recently come out in English. The Japanese version of the book was published in 2016, and Chouchan is pleased with the opportunity to bring his business philosophy to a wider international audience.
Drawing on more than 25 years of working in Japan and practicing the martial art kyūdō (Japanese archery), Chouchan offers an alternative blueprint for corporate success, and sat down with The Japan Times to share his insights.
Chouchan’s appreciation for traditional Japanese arts and wisdom goes back to his university days as a business major. He initially visited Japan in 1983 at the end of a backpacking trip around Asia. Having developed an interest in Zen, his plan was to visit a Buddhist temple of the Soto sect in the mountains of Fukui Prefecture. “I was very attracted by the fact that you work on your mind; it had a very practical aspect. What I didn’t know was that you don’t just arrive at the temple — you have to apply weeks or months in advance,” he said, smiling at the memory of his youthful naivety.
After being “politely turned away” by the temple, the disappointed student had no alternative but to hit the road, hitchhiking in hopes of getting a ride. Serendipitously, the first driver who picked Chouchan up happened to be a Zen master himself. “After inviting me to spend a week at his own temple, he then arranged for me to get special permission to return to the other in Fukui.”
Chouchan continued to take the path less traveled after graduation. At a time when all his friends were accepting offers from large firms, he wanted “something different” and came back to Japan as the sole representative for a well-established French jewelry firm. He went on to build a solid career in management for several international premium brands in Japan before joining Godiva in 2010.
Godiva has achieved impressive results, tripling its sales and profits in seven years. According to Chouchan, strong product innovation, along with a good balance between creativity and marketing, are among the company’s major strengths. Godiva Japan has two highly skilled French chefs working on creating the tastes that will eventually tickle customers’ palates.
Asked if being surrounded by chocolate every day has diminished its appeal, Chouchan shook his head and laughed. “I love to eat chocolate. I actually had a couple of pieces just before this interview,” he said.
Chouchan believes that Japan has great untapped potential to become a global center of innovation, citing the large population, sophisticated market and commitment to quality as strengths of which domestic and international companies alike should be more aware. “I think that the other Asian countries respect and wish to learn from Japan as a trendsetter in the APAC region,” he said.
His passion for kyūdō has shaped both his personal and professional life. “Most people start kyūdō through some interest in aikido or other (Japanese) martial arts, but for me, it was an intellectual thing,” he said. “I was drawn by the relationship between the archer and the target — the desire to hit. Yet, the best way to hit is not to desire it.” His interest was piqued by this paradox, leading to self-reflection and how it related to life in general and business in particular.
Chouchan cites a key teaching in the art of kyūdō as his personal motto — “Right shooting always results in a hit.” Thinking solely about hitting the target will typically lead to feeling nervous and stressed. “If you focus on having the right form, it will help you keep your mind calm and quiet and then you will hit well,” he said. “You don’t reach the target; the target reaches you. You don’t consciously aim, but you do your best and when the timing is right, the arrow releases and hits the target — a natural release.”
He went on to explain how this idea of “right-minded hitting” can be extended to the corporate world. “As you get higher in business, you may become obsessed with numbers and start pressuring your staff. But if you focus on the right things — the consumer, the product, the shops, the skills of the staff, the advertising and communication — then you will get good numbers and hit the targets,” he said. “The numbers are more like a reward for ‘hitting the right way’ but this is counterintuitive to how most big companies do business.”
Chouchan has put these principles into practice in his leadership of Godiva, fostering an environment where employees know their voices will be heard, and that their ideas are valued and welcomed. This has given rise to innovative strategies, including making Godiva chocolates more accessible to customers by selling them at convenience stores, and creating new products such as ice cream and cold drinks for the traditionally slower summer season. The soft serve in particular was so popular that it has since been introduced in other countries.
With one book now under his belt, he plans to continue examining links between ancient wisdom and the modern corporate world. “We should step back from the ‘tyranny of the numbers’ and I’m now researching how we can bring different perspectives and wisdom back, and how to implement them in business,” he said.
By Louise George Kittaka, The Japan Times