Founder's Note Posted on 17 Sep 12:25

Grow like the rings of a tree...

Normally I’m not a fan of business books. Often, I find they over-simplify really difficult decisions with empty platitudes. Or they imply individual credit for what, in reality, is a large team effort. But I recently heard that the big bosses at Toyota and other large Japanese companies would travel to a small mountain town to talk with the chairman of a (relatively) small seaweed company called Ina Foods. This company takes seaweed and produces agar, a gelling agent called kanten in Japanese. Kanten is found in everything from candy to pharmaceuticals. The chairman’s name is Hiroshi Tsukakoshi and he wrote a short book called “Tree-ring Management.”

I believe that knowledge gained without a journey is just noise. So after hearing that many well-known titans of industry would trek up a mountain to this little village to learn better ways of managing their companies, their employees, and themselves...well, I had to read this book.

The basic premise is that managers should always have a long view to ensure their company endures. And that this management philosophy is best thought of as a tree: year after year, one should grow little by little, slowly and reliable, like rings on a tree. The rings may be a little narrower one year than the next, but regardless, every year, drought or rain, the tree continues to grow.

In order to manage for the long view - to really have that vision to think beyond the day to day, the quarter to quarter - you always have to ask yourself: are my employees happier this year than the past year? You have to have profits to continue to endure, sure. But growth for profits sake is missing the point. These are our lives that we spend working. And there’s only so much time we have. If his employees aren’t happier than they were before, if they don’t feel that things are better than in the past, Mr. Tsukakoshi doesn’t really see the point of having a company. Neither do I.

Through 2005, Ina Foods had rising income and profits for almost the entire 48 years since its inception in 1958. I don’t know every company’s track record. But from what I do know, this seems like one of the most impressive business growth stories in modern times.

Another chapter in the book that I found inspiring (because I think about this all the time) is how he trains new employees. When he hires someone, he shows them a hundred-year calendar. This is simply a calendar with the next 100 years printed on a single sheet of paper. He then tells the employee that on this calendar, you will find the date of your death.

For some of us, the date of our deaths will be further at the top, for others it will be way at the bottom. It may seem jarring for new graduates to start talking about their deaths on their first day of work, but Mr. Tsukakoshi’s point is meant to be jarring.

With what limited time we have in this life - a life that can fit on a single sheet of paper - we should make the most of every single day, of every single moment. Mr. Tsukakoshi tells his employees that “if you want to be happy, do something that will make other people happy." And that “the more struggle involved in a job, the greater the sense of accomplishment will be when it is done. Nothing makes a person happier than being useful to someone and being appreciated for it. We only have one life, and it would be a terrible loss not to experience such joy and emotion.”

People in business often talk about sustainability or triple bottom lines, or other kinds of generic “make the world better” types of corporate philosophy. But at the end of the day, we’re just people, working with other people, all trying to live happy lives. And what was so refreshing about Mr. Tsukakoshi’s book was his singular focus on creating a good company - one that made his employees and his surrounding community happy.

We never know how long we have on this earth. A hundred years can fit on a single sheet of paper. But we can always choose to live every day as full as possible, to make others happy, to create something that endures.

All is possible,
- Jesse