Gregory Lyon, who owes his start in Japan to the JET program, worked for Herman Miller from 2001 as Sales Manager covering both Seoul and Tokyo. He completed his MBA in 2008 and shortly thereafter started Gregory Lyon, Inc., one of Herman Miller’s major suppliers to the Japanese market.
What was your first impression of Japan?
I moved to Japan on the Japan Education & Teaching (JET) program. I taught English at Honjo Kita High School in Saitama for two years. Despite the relative proximity to Tokyo, I was surprised by how rural Honjo is, especially the area near the school. I rode my bicycle about 5 kilometers to school and the last 2 kilometers or so were straight through rice fields. There were a lot of bugs in the spring and summer and a lot of wind in the winter. I remember at times having to walk my bike sometimes because the wind was so strong. I had traveled a good amount before arriving in Japan, but I will also never forget how bewildered I felt during my first night in Tokyo. I was staying in Shinjuku at the Hilton, and I think of that night every time I go by the hotel.
Can you tell me a little about the history of Herman Miller in Japan?
Herman Miller has been offering products to the Japanese market since 1964 and Herman Miller Japan opened a fully owned subsidiary in 1988. In December of 2010, Herman Miller moved the showroom to Marunouchi and established the first ever bricks and mortar Herman Miller retail shop.
Why did the company decide to open its only retail shop in Tokyo?
Herman Miller has a very strong brand in every major market, including Japan. I believe that Herman Miller’s Modern Classics and other seating products have created a solid core of Herman Miller fans across Japan. The store will enhance the Herman Miller fan experience, make the products and Herman Miller story more accessible, and grow the brand.
How does the Japanese furniture market differ from those in other countries?
The Japanese furniture manufacturers produce large volumes of product but are concentrated almost exclusively on the domestic market. Truly global manufacturers, such as Herman Miller, compete in every major market and, as such, are in a very strong position to offer global solutions. Therefore Herman Miller must offer inherently good design simply because it must resonate (and does so) in all markets, not just in the United States.
What have been your greatest successes living and working in Japan?
Japan is a very demanding market, simply because clients have very high expectations and are under an enormous amount of pressure to satisfy their staff and management. I take a lot of pride in being able to satisfy clients in Tokyo because I believe if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.
On a personal level, Japan is a great country for families. One of the best successes for my family has been getting my daughter into a Japanese pre-school and watching her learn Japanese. I think she will soon be translating for us.
What have been the greatest obstacles you have encountered in your time in business here?
One of the greatest obstacles in every business and market is communication. While this can sometimes come down to language, in my experience, the ability to understand exactly what your clients, partners and employees want to achieve does not come down to language but rather clarity around issues and solutions. Consistently achieving this clarity, in most businesses and markets, is a challenge.
What has been the most surprising thing that you have learned working in Japan?
The most surprising thing I have learned about working in Japan is how hard the Japanese work at getting something right, but by doing so on their own. In the United States, new hires learn by asking questions, whereas new hires in Japan are very concerned about asking too many questions. As such, they tend to struggle through problems and issues on their own and therefore have a much higher level of conscientiousness and a steeper, more detailed learning curve. I have a lot of respect for the Japanese because of this consistent level of effort.
Gregory Lyon, Inc.