Director, EARTH Holdings / Representative Director, Sanctuary Corporation
Seiji Yamashita（Seiji Yamashita ）
Born 1976 in Shizuoka Prefecture. At the age of 19, Yamashita moved to Tokyo after graduating from high school and started working as a hairdresser. At age 24, he began working at EARTH, a chain of beauty salons that operates 240 franchised stores with 3,000 employees and 1.8 billion yen in annual sales. Yamashita is now director of EARTH holdings and is also the representative director of Sanctuary Corporation, which operates 70 franchised stores. His first publication, Successful Habits to Earn 100 Million Yen a Year (Nenshu Ichiokuen ni Naruhito no Shukan) (Diamond Press), sold over 60,000 copies in its first four months and has received rave reviews, having been featured on the TV program “Professor Hayashi’s Class of Surprises.” In October 2018, he delivered a lecture in front of 10,000 people at Makuhari Messe.
A teen whose world revolved around being cool, Seiji Yamashita decided to dive into the world of beauty and embody his own brand of “cool.” This up-and-coming executive believes that it’s easy to get serious when you’re doing something that you think is cool—and he’s very serious about the work he’s doing, developing a system that may very well revolutionize productivity in the beauty industry.
My Life Changed Once I Stopped Blaming Others
The Seeds of an Executive Planted in Childhood
When I was little, my dream was to be a hero just like Superman. Why? Because he was cool. My father worked at a bank and he was often courted by executive types. I was just a kid then and didn’t understand what exactly it was they were talking about, but I do remember getting excited when I realized that these executives must have a lot of money. I overheard my father talking to them about sums of money that were beyond the imagination of a kid like me with a 10-yen allowance. [laughs] I thought they were so cool. But for kids today, being rich may not be cool anymore. In fact, one recent survey reported less than 20% of children aged 6-18 thought that being rich was cool ( “Survey No. 3 on Children’s Lives and Finances,” The Central Council for Financial Services Information). But when I was a kid, there was no doubt that being rich meant you were cool.
I realized if I wanted to be rich, I needed to become an executive. But how was I supposed to do that? I came to a conclusion only a child like me could conceive: I was going to be a hairdresser. My reasoning was simple. There was a guy with a barber shop in the neighborhood where I grew up in Shizuoka Prefecture who I thought was so cool, from the way he looked to the way he worked. I said to myself, “This guy has to be an executive. He has his own shop, after all.” I decided I was going to grow up to be just like him, and then I’d be an executive, too. Looking back now, my reasoning was a pretty silly, but I feel like that’s what sparked my passion to run a business.
Resisting the Naysayers and Going Rogue
I told my father that after I graduated middle school, I was going to skip high school and become a barber. He flat-out rejected my proposal. Lifetime employment and seniority-based promotion were the norm back then, and people said if you didn’t go to a good school, you couldn’t get a good job. It’s no surprise then that my father was against it. I lashed out a lot, oblivious to how my parents felt about their son’s rash decision. My father urged me to go to high school and, at the very least, study a subject in the humanities, so I entered a local commercial high school.
During high school, I got into a lot of fights and dreamt of becoming the toughest guy in Japan. [laughs] My favorite manga series was Be-Bop High School, a story about high school punks by Kazuhiro Kiuchi. I got it in my head that punks were the cool guys—the heroes—soso I acted like a punk, too. But then I got in trouble with my teachers, who told me we weren’t living in feudal Japan and I was no samurai. They were totally right. [laughs] My high school had eight girls for every one boy, so I started to believe that I got along better with girls. And that’s when I started to appreciate the world of beauty over that of the barber.
Today the number of male hairdressers is on the rise, but at the time, people thought it was a woman’s job. All my relatives were prejudiced against me and said I was a weirdo, that I’d gone rogue. After high school, I went against my parents’ wishes when I came to Tokyo to go to beauty school, so I couldn’t expect any financial support from them. I worked high-paying night jobs at mahjong and pachinko parlors to pay rent and tuition. It was during these late-night shifts when I saw the emotional roller-coaster ride of a gambler's life, and I realized that some rich guys aren’t cool at all. I still refuse to gamble because it's just not cool to live a life of decadence, no matter how much money you have. You'll never fill that hole in your heart by gambling your money away.
Own Your Failures
As soon as I finished school, I started working at a beauty salon in Tokyo. But I felt like I was never recognized for my talents, no matter how hard I worked. I was restless. I knew that if I stayed there I would have few opportunities to grow, and I certainly would never be able to take over as owner. So when I was 24, I decided to look elsewhere for work. The first salon that got back to me about my application was EARTH. They called me up to ask if I could come in for an interview that same day, so I scrambled over. A particularly flashy, flamboyant guy came out to greet me, and after listening to my spiel, he simply said, “Welcome to the team.” That guy ended up being Toshiharu Kokubun, the CEO of EARTH. Kokubun's flamboyance stems from his belief that the gaps in perception between looking like a playful slacker and being a diligent professional can be an important selling point for hairdressers. He plays the part of a beauty salon executive well. He owns a Ferrari because it seems like the car that a salon exec would drive, though he doesn’t actually drive it that often.
Before I started working at EARTH, I was cynical about people. If I didn’t succeed, it was never through any fault of my own. My circumstances and other people were always to blame. I believed that my parents’ opposition to me becoming a hairdresser— and my former employer’s failure to recognize my talents—was because of some malicious intent on their part.
Editor's note: A barber's job is to maintain someone's appearance by sculpting their hair or shaving their face. A hairdresser, on the other hand, creates a beautiful appearance through things like perms, up-dos, and makeup. A hairdresser can set a perm, but a barber can't. And while a barber can shave someone's face, a hairdresser isn’t allowed to. (Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare)
But I had it all wrong. Kokubun taught me that the source of my troubles wasn’t someone else but my own immaturity. He believes that deep down people are fundamentally good, so he looks more at people's strengths than at their shortcomings. He’s fair to everyone, never complains, and never whines. He never forgets to thank the people who made him who he is today. His example has helped me show gratitude to my parents, my teachers, and the CEO of my old salon. I believe he channeled my negativity—all of that inner resentment, hatred, and anger—and transformed it into positivity that is constructive and encourages others. Past opposition, denial, and failure have all given me plenty of food for thought.
Hone Your Craft in Your Thirties
Build Your Network in Your Forties
I feel that I spent my thirties building up skills, knowledge, and experience. In other words, I was honing my craft. I still use that craft today, carving out a path that I believe in. I’d categorize my forties as the decade where I want to broaden both my network and the scope of my work. In your twenties and thirties, it’s easy to get results by concentrating on one thing and sticking to it. People need individual effort, study, and discipline in order to grow, but there’s a limit to how much you can do on your own. Once you hit forty, I think it’s important that you broaden your potential. Kokubun has often said that 70% of business is your network of people. That's what I’m working on now—creating and maintaining healthy relationships with people. I want to build a network of close contacts who have the skills and sensitivities that I don’t.
Two Ways to Increase Productivity in the Beauty Industry
I’m currently looking at how we can improve the hairdresser’s work environment. The beauty industry is said to have high turnover, but most people don’t quit because they’re dissatisfied with being a hairdresser. They quit because of bad working conditions. The biggest problem the beauty industry faces is low productivity. Sales for a beauty salon are determined by multiplying the number of customers by the amount that each of those customers spends. On average, if a customer spends ¥5,000 for a two-hour visit, revenue comes to ¥20,000 per person per eight-hour shift. If an employee works twenty-five days a month, then the productivity per person, or revenue, is ¥500,000 per month. If you can’t increase productivity and break through this ¥500,000 wall, you can’t improve your income structure or treat your hairdressers better. So how do you increase productivity?
I think you can only do this the following two ways. The first is by selling more retail items like shampoo. The other is through beauty breakthroughs in healthcare and preventative medicine. These are essential to broadening the work of the hairdresser, who would otherwise simply cut and style hair. Just like doctors deal in health and lawyers deal in the law, hairdressers also deal in something for their customers. We deal in beauty—but it is much more than skin deep. After a haircut, people feel like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders. When you give them a new look, their faces light up. When you moisturize their hair, you rejuvenate their soul. A new hairstyle can give a person a whole new take on life. I’ve seen so many people whose love lives or careers improved dramatically after a change in hairstyle. Being a hairdresser is a wonderful job that helps people shine. And yet, right now many hairdressers are choosing to quit. I believe it's my duty to create a decent work environment so aspiring hairdressers can stay in the industry.
A Superhero with Water-like Powers
I still want to be a superhero, even now. And just like how Superman has super strength, speed, flight, and x-ray vision, I want a superpower, too. I want the superpower of water. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu left us with a verse that says: “True goodness is like water, in that it benefits everything and harms nothing. Like water it ever seeks the lowest place, the place that all others avoid.” Lao Tzu compares true goodness, the ideal way to live, to water. If you pour water into something round, it will become round. Pour it into something square and it will be square. Water conforms to the shape of its container. Water is fluid and is willing to bend in order to suit the needs of its vessel. It’s humble enough to flow into the deepest of depths and lowest of lows. Although water possesses a gentle healing power, which blesses the earth and grows crops and quenches our thirst, its violent currents also have the power to cut through stone. If I had the powers of fluidity, humility, healing, and even destruction—the powers of water—I think I really could be a real-life superhero.
I’m constantly reminded that serious people attract serious company. Sugiyama and I were both totally engrossed in our work when we were younger, sweating it out in our twenties and racking our brains throughout our thirties. I think that’s why we’re just meeting each other now in our forties.
Having grown up in New York, Sugiyama moves fast and has completely different tastes from someone like me, who was raised in Shizuoka. He’s got a cool head, a warm heart, and a great sense of pace. He thinks on his feet, gets things done, and is always planning his next move…On the day of the interview, he blew in with the brute force of a hurricane and was gone just as quick as he came. [laughs]
Sugiyama got me talking by approaching my story from a variety of angles, which is why I think I was able to articulate philosophies that I myself had yet to realize.
Thanks, Sugiyama. This interview was a lot of fun.
Interview and Editor : Daisuke Sugiyama | Text: Yutaka Fujiyoshi | Photography: Akane Inagaki
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