2011 was yet another year of financial turmoil, which both further hurt and altered Tokyo’s financial industry. The hundreds of employees in the various banks and investment houses had always been prominent members of Tokyo’s foreign community and their hardship reflect what many in this community have been through in recent years. Tokyo Weekender sat with Ari Druker, a long time expat, and former banker in his office at the Prudential Tower, to tell us his story
Looking back, how did the financial crisis unfolded in your bank?
Things were getting ugly but it wasn’t really that bad until Lehman Brothers collapsed. Our group was doing lending backed by real estate and everything was already frozen in the U.S. but there was a delay before the crisis actually arrived here.
We would have conference calls with the U.S. and they would say “are you sure you are going to close these deals?!”—Back then things were good and office vacancies in Tokyo were about one percent; even if you wanted space you couldn’t get it, so we thought we were safe.
Soon enough though, it became clear that things were going to get worse, but I still didn’t think I would get hit personally. I was in the risk side and we were always kind of protected compared with the sales people.
On my side, things were hectic and every night I was in the office until midnight.
I was one of the busiest guys there…
Were you at any point expecting to be laid off?
Not really, as our group was still pretty much together into the crisis, much longer than other groups in the business.
Things prior happened in stages, we had a small reduction late in the year but about half of us were gone at the end of my fateful day.
It was a bizarre experience for me (though well-known in the industry), one by one, people’s phones would ring and be asked to attend a meeting…
Soon enough other staff in the office started to chatter, “Oh my god, this person went to a meeting and didn’t come back!”… I was so busy those days and was the only one doing my job and therefore I didn’t think it would be me.
Finally, in the afternoon, it came completely out of the blue, I got a call from HR, and it was over.
What exactly did your boss say to you?
He said, “We know you’re very busy but New York told us the head count has to be reduced…it’s not you, it’s everybody, and my time will likely come too.”
Then your boss was fired too?!
Well, I do not know what his exact situation was, but I can tell you he is no longer there.
At that time, he made it clear that there was no going back to the good ol’ days, and that’s why I understood the graveness of the situation and there was not much I could say.
How long had you worked at the bank?
I was there for nine years. And it was first time in my life I had ever been asked to leave… you hear about this stuff but you just never expect it will happen to you.
What did you do next?
I traveled to Okinawa and Hawaii with my family and actually had a great refreshing time.
Then came back to look for a job, that was very nerve wracking, especially with a family, I went to speak to a lot of head-hunters, they said “now is definitely not the time to look for a job.”
It was really hard with no end in sight; nobody was really optimistic back then.
How many other expats do you know who got the boot?
By now…I would say over half of my friends in other institutions were laid off or moved overseas.
In some companies, there was probably a 90% head count reduction.
Did you ever consider leaving Japan for good?
Yes, I really thought about leaving, especially after seeing Singapore and Hong Kong recover so quickly.
However, Japan is still a desirable place to live in terms of bringing up kids and safety.
If you talk to any foreigner that has lived here, once you get past the initial culture shock they love it here, so there are still plenty of reasons to stay.
What do you do now?
I’ve joined Jones Lang LaSalle, which is a U.S. based real estate services provider, within the Corporate Finance team.
We deal with all aspects of real estate finance, such as arranging debt for first time property buyers in Japan, (usually being foreign funds).
We also raise capital for overseas real estate funds and find joint-venture partners to develop and finance projects in other Asian countries, and thus I find myself speaking to Japanese investors such as banks, developers and various financial institutions.
You may read about this type of deals in the Financial Times or the Nikkei, but we are going out and doing it.
What do you think about the future of Tokyo as a global financial hub?
I am optimistic about Tokyo, but Japan as a whole is facing some challenges and large structural impediments, which impact it as a financial hub.
An aging population, compiled with a declining birth-rate and seemingly low openness to immigration.
While there are many proficient English speakers, in general, the English language is still a big problem for many.
What do you think Japan could do to improve competitiveness?
Expanding Haneda Airport was a step in the right direction, but of course tax incentives, need to be implemented, and other ideas too, like better day-care.
If you look at the low number of women in the workforce, that is still a big issue. When I go to Singapore, half of the office staff are women.
How confident are you moving into 2012?
In my industry, I believe my group is in the right place at the right time; all the economic factors set the stage for Japan to invest abroad, and given our global footprint, we are in a prime position to help.
Inbound investment may take longer because overseas investors are still concerned about radiation and earthquakes, but the economy is coming back.
So, blue skies ahead?
Maybe not just yet, but they are coming. I think the industry is at such a low point from which it can only improve.