Love what you do, and success will follow
by Laura Fumiko Keehn
It’s been 20 years of ups and downs for Allen Krissman and the Krissman International Tennis School (KITS). Through it all, Krissman, President of KITS, has managed to keep himself on a successful track by staying true to his love of the game. Here he shares some of his mistakes and hard-earned business secrets with Weekender, and shows us how he’s transferred his energy and sense of fun to a successful, foreign-owned business in Tokyo.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I actually wanted to be an archeologist. That changed when a neighbor gave me my first tennis racquet for Christmas. At the age of seven I found a whole new world!
You’ve been here awhile. What was it like coming to Japan in the early 80s?
When I arrived in 1982, Japan was entering the ‘bubble’ economy era, and wealth and excess was everywhere! I was hired to train Japanese coaches, but I didn’t last long in Corporate Japan. I loved Japan but hated the ‘Way of the Company.’ In 1984 I started Krissman International Tennis School with one court and 15 students. My philosophy was to provide the best professional tennis instruction in English at a reasonable price that would accommodate ex-pats on a budget. It caught on right away, and not just for the ex-pats — about 40 percent of our student base is Japanese. We now have nine school locations and teach over 600 students a week!
What was your business background?
I had run businesses before, I even left tennis for a year and worked in marketing with one of the largest computer companies in the Midwest. In fact, I made more money there then I ever made in tennis, but at the end of the day I couldn’t wait to get back on the court. Tennis is my way of life!
What are some of the things you are most proud of in your 20-year history?
The best thing we’ve achieved is to bring the United States Professional Tennis Association Little Tennis program to Tokyo, which brings tennis to children as young as two and a half years old. Our program reaches over 1,000 children a year. It all came back to me over the Christmas Holiday when I was visited by a past junior student, who started at age four and is now a Senior and playing varsity at the University of Connecticut while going on to law school. That’s the payback, that’s better than any big company bonus for a teacher, I love this job!
How hard was it to start a business here in Japan as a foreigner?
Of course it was never easy to “be the nail standing up” in Tokyo, and I made a lot of mistakes. Like the time we opened a school with a large and famous department store group. After two years of planning (oh the meetings!) and a successful opening we were replaced by ‘in-house’ coaches. But the biggest mistake I made was to try and expand too quickly. After my third school in Tokyo and flush with success, I opened a location in Taiwan — what an education! I learned my lesson; slow down and let it happen.
Long-term partnerships are also essential a company as it grows from infancy to maturity. Nineteen years ago I was introduced to an American company that was going to import a new line of running and tennis shoes to Japan. New Balance Japan became, and still is, our only shoe supplier. They have always supported us with prizes and backing. Another major sponsor/partner has been Wilson Tennis Japan (now called Amer Sports), who were our original sponsors for Little Tennis, and have been our tennis racquet supplier for 12 years. Both these companies stuck with us through our business ups and downs and are no small part of our success. This is another business secret; find good partners and stick with them. Loyalty is an important factor that is not easy to read on the spreadsheet but will always show up on the bottom line!
Lastly, my wife and partner Keiko has been my business ace. She is a successful business woman in her own right, a former professional ballerina, and the best teacher I have ever seen. She runs four ballet schools (Krissman International Ballet School ‘KIBS’) and has helped me sort out the difficult and sometimes baffling business world in Japan.
Krissman International Tennis School