Jerome Chouchan (H.84)
The French Samurai
Tokyo. We met Jérôme at Godiva’s offices. The huge chocolatier that employs over 1000 people in Japan has doubled its sells over the last five years thanks to Jérôme’s piloting inspired from Kyudo, Japanese traditional archery, which he has been practicing for more than 25 years . Jérôme was even asked to write a book in Japanese to explain his mindset – inspired by ancient Japanese wisdom – to Japanese people. Curious? Check-it out!
Read full transcript…
HU: Hi Jerome, as the tradition goes, we are going to start with a Chinese portrait. So what would you be if you were… a color?
HU: An animal?
HU: A movie?
JC: The Passenger, from Michelangelo Antonioni.
HU: A sin?
HU: An object?
JC: A bow
HU: A sport or a game?
JC: Japanese archery, which is called Kyudo: “the way of the bow”
HU: A book?
JC: L’inconnu sur la terre, from Jean-Marie Le Clézio
HU: Now, could you sum up you professional background in 30 seconds?
JC: I graduated from HEC and I have been working in Japan and Asia for thirty years, involved in starting and growing businesses, mostly premium retail brands. It goes from Lacoste (clothing) to Hennessy (brandy) and now Godiva (chocolate).
HU: Have you ever had to face a difficult choice in your professional life? What did you learn?
JC: I was working for a very good brand in a wonderful group: LVMH group. And I was the business development director for Hennessy. I was in charge of the Japanese market and the brand promotion divisions. I was travelling a lot between Europe and Japan and I was living in France with my family. And then another company called me to take a president role, but based in Japan. It was a career change, a group change and I was really hesitating between being in France, with a French group, wonderful brands… or be for the first time the president of a business unit based in Japan. Finally I decided to take the risk and move to Japan to manage that business. It is a difficult choice because you change company and you change country. Then you have to know why you make the change and for me the bottom line was not the size of the group nor where I lived but the wish to have a full P&L responsibility.
HU: What makes you happy to go to work every morning?
JC: First of all, it is a business which moves very quickly. We have new collections nearly every months. So what makes me happy is that every time it is a different challenge. Everyday you have something new happening. I like the excitement of the newness.
HU: What are your usual tasks?
JC: When you are a president of a business of this size – we have 280 boutiques in Japan and I am also managing Korea and Australia on top of that – you have to get a good balance on the internal urgency and going outside the company to meet some competitors, partners, other industry people to learn new things. And also have some time to think of the future: what do you want for the company in 2 or 3 years down the road?
“When you practice Japanese archery as I do every week, you find out that if your mind is focused on hitting the target, your body form will be poor and then you will not hit”
HU: What is Godiva’s strategy for the future?
JC: Godiva in Japan has been fortunate enough to double its sale over the last five years. Which means a growth of 15% per year, which is a great achievement from the teams because the market of chocolate has been flat over the last five years and the economy is one or two percent growth in GDP. We have been extremely successful, so now the question is: how do we continue to be successful? The keys for us are the following:
- Be very innovative on products, not only chocolates in a box but also chocolate as ingredients, that you can use for cookies, ice cream, drinks, different products that you can eat all over the year.
- Have more shops, that can fit every occasion for the consumer. We are in some railway stations, department stores, street boutiques…
- Have a brand image that is relevant to our consumers and modern
Our vision is to be aspirational, be a brand you aspire to and feel very connected with. As well as accessible, in the sense physically accessible, you will have a shop near your office and near your home you can buy a product of Godiva. We have a multi channel strategy, but at the same time keeping a very aspirational brand. It is a unique path: being very aspirational and very accessible with many stores among different channels at the same time.
HU: How are you able to achieve that strategy?
JC: First is never to compromise in the quality. Wherever you will buy our product, street stores, department stores, convenience stores, shopping malls, the chocolate will have a perfect quality. Second thing, when you enter a Godiva shop you will have a very professional and warm service. We invest a lot in trainings so that we give a great service to the consumers and they start feeling the quality from the first communication with our sell staff. Maintaining that allows us to have a great brand image but also to be easy to connect with because we have many shops. You don’t need to take you car and go down town or very far to buy the product. We are also very active in communicating with the consumer, we do 4 TV campaigns a year. We are also involved in the social media. We recently launched a youtube video that we called “back to the first time”. We interrogated 51 couples in Japan about their first kiss. They would say for example: “it was on a bridge” or “we were walking in a forest” or talking about other situations and after that we brought these couples back to these scenes so that they remind this moment. We don’t show any Godiva product at all but at the end we say “it is important to have feelings, but it is even more important to express your feelings” and we finish with the logo of Godiva. It is a very cute video.
HU: You have mentioned your passion for Japanese archery: Kyudo. Could you tell us more about this passion you have?
JC: Kyudo means the way of the bow, Do: the way, Kyu: the bow. I have been practicing Kyudo for more than 25 years. The big difference with European archery is that in European archery is about accuracy of hitting, Whether Japanese archery is about having the proper body and mind form and AS A RESULT hitting the target. So the way you hit the target, the way your body is during the practice is as important as hitting the target. In other words it is putting emphasis on the process and the result is a natural consequence of the correct process. I find this philosophy very inspiring for the business world. You have a lot of pressure on sales and profits but you can make a step back from there and say : “first, let’s put our team’s focus on what is proper for the business”. It means products, it means sales process, it means proper campaigns. And sales will be a natural outcome of this proper process. So this relationship between the how and the what, and not to be over focused by hitting the target have really helped me in my business. When you practice Japanese archery as I do every week, you find out that if your mind is focused on hitting the target, your body form will be poor and then you will not hit. In the business and in my management style, instead of asking to my teams “what is your sales today” “please do more” in a top-down or controle and commande style. I focus all the energy of the teams on subjects like “did we have good products” “did we provide good service on the store” “what can we do better”. And I don’t talk so much about the result, the hit, the sales, the profit… What happened, I can tell you, is that the team feel much more engaged, creative, open and committed to the business. So they don’t have this dark pressure of “will I hit my target or not”, that can take your mind and make you really worried. They put all the energy on making the good product, the good sale strategy, the good marketing strategy. And this is how we succeeded to double our business in the last five years.
“You get better thanks to your failures. It is common sense but you really feel it deep under the skin when you practice Kyudo”
HU: To share this experience, you wrote a book about Kyudo wisdom applied to business. Could you tell us more about that?
JC: A Japanese publisher new that Godiva had achieve a good economic result and that I was involved in Japanese archery, which is quite rare for a foreigner, so he contacted me and that is how this book project has been born. The book is written in Japanese and its name is a Japanese term: Seisha-Ishu, which means “right shooting always results in a hit”. Even Japanese people didn’t know this Japanese ideogram. So they are discovering this philosophy through my book, and funny enough it is a French guy that reminds Japanese people of this ideogram!
HU: Funny story! What are the rules of Kyudo?
JC: The Japanese bow is the longest bow in the world, it is 2 meters big. The whole idea is to keep your body strait. Even when you release the arrow. In Japanese archery, the release move should be as natural as possible. To do that the Kyudo art have been divided into 8 steps among which are: placing the feet – placing the body – raising the bow – drawing the bow – releasing the bow and so on… So you repeat these 8 steps over and over until you get good at it. So archers who have been practicing Kyudo for 20 years, 8 years or one year do the same gestures, from the master to the beginner. But the more you do it, the more in becomes natural to your body.
HU: Ok, so it is all about being natural?
JC: Yes, but the interesting is that in the west we think that to be natural is to be simply yourself. But here to be natural is a result of many efforts.
HU: You are also very much involved in the international Kyudo community right?
JC: I am a boad member of the international Kyudo federation. It promotes Kyudo around the world. I am also, after having passed many tests, fifth dan in the discipline, which is the grade of instructor. The test for fifth Dan is to hit two arrows out of two with a very good form, and I have failed thirty five times. In the HEC community we are all high achievers. We enter HEC, we succeed our job interviews, we grow the business… And imagine after that starting a martial art and keeping failing all the time. But you get better thanks to your failures. It is common sense but you really feel it deep under the skin when you practice Kyudo. It gives you a lot of humility. And I think it is very important when you manage a business. You are in a situation of power, you decide and the people follow you. But when you fail year after year, test after test on the path of the martial art, you learn to be humble and to challenge yourself.
HU: You are getting us curious. How long does it take to get these “Dans” you are talking about?
JC: The scale goes from 1rst Dan up to 8th Dan. I takes about 1 year and 1 year and a half between each Dan from the 1rst to 3rd Dan, with you usually failing once or twice. It become much more difficult from 3rd Dan to 4th Dan and even more from 4th to 5th. It took me fifteen years from the 4th Dan to the 5th Dan. At some point you really think you have hit the wall but you have to keep going, that’s all. And one day you finally do a good shot and you pass. I have been to some tests when I hit twice the target, and it is not easy, even the masters don’t hit every time. But the judge didn’t give me the “pass” because of my body form. So you are very disappointed because you cannot see yourself. For you to know the judges don’t look at the target, they are sitting in from of you, assessing the harmony and power of your body and shot.
HU: Now we are going to talk about your city: Tokyo. What do you like to do during your free time?
JC: I spend a lot of time doing Japanes archery on the week ends, since I am working all week long. I also enjoy very much going to the countryside and go in the hot springs, the “onsen”. You have some traditional hot springs in Japan that are very relaxing for the body, it is an amazing experience. It is not medicinal hotsprings, it is all about relaxation.
HU: Where can you practice Kyudo in Tokyo?
JC: I practice in two different place, one is the big Meiji Jingu Park in the center of Tokyo where there is a beautiful dojo in the center of the park. It is near Harajuku. I also go to a private dojo owned by the same family for more than a hundred years, 45mn by train from the center of Tokyo.
Barrels of saké facing barrels of french wine, symbol of friendship between Japan and France, Meiju Jingu Park, Tokyo
HU: If you only had 24 hours left to live in Tokyo, what would you do?
JC: I have been through this very tough period after the earthquake in march 2011 when there was a nuclear risk over Tokyo. Everybody was asking himself the question at that time. I stayed in the country because I managed this more than one thousand people business. However I sent my family to Hong Kong. At the climax of the crisis I was wondering about leaving the country myself. I live in a traditional house with a small garden in which I have a maki-wara, a kyudo straw target. I remember that to relax I used to practice a few arrows in the morning. So that is definitely one thing I would do if I only had 24 hours. I also love sushi, and now I know very good places. So I would like to eat the best sushi in town and then leave.
HU: We were just wondering, how far is the target usually?
JC: 28 meters. And the maki-wara is just 3 meters away.
HU: Do you have a bow at home? I guess there is a whole tradition behind making bows and arrows, could you tell us more about that?
JC: Japan has a very rich tradition of craftmenship. From kimono, to lacquer, to traditional arts. The bow are made in bamboo by master bow-makers who transmit their know-how from generation to generation. So you have only a few bow makers and same for arrows and leather gloves. To give you an example, I ordered some arrows from an arrow maker in the suburb of Tokyo and I had to wait eight months for him to make them.
HU: What do you like about people from Tokyo?
JC: I think the people from Tokyo have a special thing that allow them to live in a very big city – Tokyo is one of the biggest metropolis in the world – but to do it in a such smooth way that you don’t feel agressivity, you don’t feel it is too packed, nor nervosity in the street. There is a kind of peacefulness that I really like with the people in Tokyo and it enables Tokyo to be a fascinating city even if it is extremely crowded.
HU: According to you, what is today Japan’s main challenge?
JC: Today Japan’s main challenge is to regain confidence. There was a period twenty years ago when Japan was the booming economy in the world, people were talking about a Japanese miracle and so on… Beginning of the 90’s the bubble collapsed and after that Japan struggled to gain momentum. What is missing now is a positive mindset, self confidence and a willingness to play a global part. Japan is an island so they have a tendency to live in their own world. But I think Japan has a potential to be a key player in the world, to be much more innovative than it is now. They have tremendous ressources, not natural ressources but people ressources as they have proved it in the past. They can be creative, well organized. They must find again their positive energy, innovation spirit and challenge mindset. The young generation, which has been – so to speak – spoilt because they were born in a very rich country while the other generation was born in a very poor country. Now they need to have this willingness to achieve something and the old generation has to let go a little. That is the dilemma now.
HU: Going back in time now, imagine yourself when you were a student at HEC, what was your favorite place on the campus?
JC: I have two favorite places, one was the soccer field and the second was the Kfet. But don’t think that I was not a good student…
“I would advise people to have a lot of experience outside the academic life to build their know “how to be”, how to be with others. Because it is becoming more and more the differentiating factor between a successful career and someone that had more challenge down the road”
HU: Soccer field we agree but the Kfet… is there any reason in particular?
JC: It was an open place, you could get together there after work, there was always someone to talk to.
HU: What is your best memory from HEC?
JC: I was president of an association called AIESEC-HEC. It was a club that was making market surveys for companies. We have been able to get a big contract with Saint-Gobain vitrage for a market survey in Asia. As students we got real budget for the first time to make a market survey abroad, it is a great memory. After that we made a very solid and structured report and presented it to the company.
HU: Is there a particular moment, good or bad, that you will always remember from HEC?
JC: I remember when the international program in management was lauched. It was called the PIM. It was about spending 6 months studying in a university abroad. Everybody was very excited about it and wanted to apply. And of course many people, including me, were very disappointed not to be selected. So we made some posters on the corridors in the campus talking about, let’s say, the strengths and the weaknesses of the selection process, illustrated with some hand crafted designs… that was a funny moment.
HU: Why would you advise someone to go to HEC?
JC: I think it is a world leading academic institution. Now it is becoming very international with strong roots in France. The campus is amazing. And now the HEC network is a worldwide network.
HU: For which reason would you like to be contacted by an HEC alumnus?
JC: I would like to be contacted when someone has an idea or a project that would imply a real conversation between him and I. That something can be built from there, not just “give me a number” or “give me a connection”. So we would meet, like we meet today, and would have a real discussion. That’s how I would like to be contacted. Not just a by simple email.
HU: What advice would you give to a young HEC today?
JC: I would say it is a good start to be there, but you should also try to build the strength of your mind and your communication skills from your HEC days onward. You learn many technical skills at HEC but now it is more and more about the way you communicate and behave that count in the corporate world. I would advise people to have a lot of experience outside the academic life to build their know “how to be”, how to be with others. Because it is becoming more and more the differentiating factor between a successful career and someone that had more challenge down the road.
HU: HEC’s motto is “the more you know, the more you dare”. What would be your own moto?
JC: I will use an aphorisme coming from Japanese archery: “every shot is your last shot”. This means you have to do everything you do, everyday, as if it was your last, doing your best.