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Suite Talk: Takeshi Umiyama, managing director, OWNDAYS Singapore

Takeshi Umiyama, managing director, OWNDAYS Singapore, shares his views on how HR has contributed to the company's rapid expansion out of Japan.

Q I understand that you joined OWNDAYS in 2013, how has your journey with the company been so far?

It has been an exciting journey for me so far. Our first shop in Singapore, which opened in July 2013, was also our first venture out of Japan. There was a very steep learning curve in terms of understanding the market in Singapore, finding our ground and growing the business here.

Our pioneer batch of local employees played a key role in helping me open up to how things run in Singapore and adapting to the way of life in Singapore. This experience has helped me better understand and appreciate diversity. Our growth in Singapore has also catapulted our regional development. To-date, we have retail presence in 10 countries and I’ve enjoyed the process of building up OWNDAYS in new countries and learning about new cultures along the way.

Q Since first venturing outside Japan and opening the first store in 2013, OWNDAYS now has 23 outlets across Singapore. What was the biggest talent challenge you faced while scaling up operations in Singapore?

Our employees in Singapore are very passionate and dedicated to the company and I believe that I’m very lucky in that sense. Over the past four years, we have opened 23 shops in Singapore, and the biggest challenge for us is recruiting opticians.

In Singapore, only licensed opticians are allowed to conduct eye checks and handle prescription glasses. However, there is a limited pool of these licensed opticians in Singapore so the challenge is really on recruiting the right people to join our fast-expanding team.

Q Any people related advice for companies to be able to achieve success like OWNDAYS has?

One key factor that has contributed to our success is openness - and my definition of being open encompasses several areas. Firstly, we are open to diversity and culture differences.

When we implement company policies or new systems, we do not simply replicate from our HQ in Japan. Instead, we have discussions with the local team to tailor and localise these new policies to suit our staff in Singapore. In this sense, I think we are quite flexible and it helps us create a stronger bond with the employees.

We also believe in maintaining constant communication with all our employees and encourage open communication. In my opinion, good communication and transparency help to build trust in the company and in turn makes the working environment a more pleasant one for our employees.

Q How would you define your leadership style?

I define my role as the “optimiser” in the company. In any organisation, there are many different voices and people naturally have different views and ideas. My approach is to listen to all the voices and then optimise the various inputs such that we would still stay true to our company philosophy and at the same time, achieve the best results.

Q Having worked in Japan and Singapore, did you have to tweak your leadership style to fit each country? 

Whether it is in Japan or Singapore, I believe I work the same way – as an optimiser. I value the ideas from my team and I would evaluate these ideas in the same manner, be it coming from the team in Japan or in Singapore.

Q What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make as a boss, and what did you learn from it?

There isn’t any decision that I’ve made which stands out for being particularly tough. This is perhaps because I work at a fast pace – when I implement something and it’s not achieving the results I’ve expected, I’ll put a stop to it quickly. I’m not afraid of making mistakes. Instead, I’d acknowledge the mistakes and move on quickly. I think this is why we can expand very quickly in Singapore and around the region.

Q How do you engage and motivate staff when they are struggling with work?

Constant and open communication is very important to OWNDAYS. I share my personal WhatsApp and LINE accounts with all the staff. Every employee is welcome to reach me directly to discuss any issues they have, or even to just invite me to their family functions like weddings or birthday celebrations! I also share updates via social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter so that our employees are aware of the new happenings in the company or in my life outside work.

On a more serious note, I also conduct staff training on the OWNDAYS company culture, and this is where I encourage staff to speak to me about any issues they may be facing. I travel very frequently, up to three weeks in a month, so the training gives me a good opportunity to meet the employees in person.

Q What is your view of human resources as a business function? How closely do you work with your HR head and on what kind of issues?

I believe that HR is very important especially in service-oriented companies like OWNDAYS. What we sell in our shops are not only the glasses, it is also the entire shopping experience and a large proportion of this concept of the OWNDAYS experience is attributed to the service that our staff provide. For instance, helping customers pick a pair of frames, doing eye checks and even fitting of the glasses.

All in all, our staff spend a substantial amount of time with each customer and so they really form the core of our business. That’s why, having employees who are very motivated and passionate about their jobs are very important.

We are a very lean company so I work very closely with the team. I’m involved in developing our HR strategies and also fine-tuning our HR systems as the company grows.

In my opinion, employees are the most prized assets that a company has. It is crucial that decision makers in any company value the contributions of all its employees and recognise the fact that a company is built by its people.

Q Can HR leaders make it to a CEO level? Why/why not?

Yes, I believe that it is possible for HR leaders to make it to a CEO level. HR is equally important as the other aspects of a business. Everyone in an organisation has different strengths. Similarly, CEOs could be from varied backgrounds, be it finance, marketing, technology or HR. What is more important is for the CEO to manage the various core functions of a company regardless of what background he or she is from.


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