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Wednesday, March 8, 2000

Japan business
pioneer has
Hawaii roots

eBay Japan's new CEO
has thrived by turning around her
father's failing food company

By Peter Wagner


Merle Okawara was a 15-year-old Punahou School student when her family left Hawaii for Japan in the late 1950s. More than 40 years later, the recently named CEO of eBay Japan Inc. recalls how she "blundered" her way into a career as one of Japan's most prominent businesswomen.

"My father discouraged me from going into business because women were not in the work force," Okawara said in a telephone interview from her Tokyo home last week. "They were expected to have families and not work outside the home."

She proved him wrong by taking his failing business, JC Foods Inc., and turning it into a $100 million company with six factories and 500 employees. JC Foods was publicly listed seven years ago, the first to be listed in Japan by a foreigner, let alone a woman.

Mug shot


Bullet Name: Merle Aiko Okawara.
Bullet Age: 58.
Bullet Birthplace: Hawaii.
Bullet Schooling: The former Merle Higa attended Punahou School until age 15. Received law degree from University of Geneva.
Bullet Personal: Married to Takeshi Okawara, president of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Japan.
Bullet Etc.: Author of the book "When Women Create Companies," Toyo Keizai publisher, 1995.

"He said 'you can try it for a year and if it doesn't work out, we'll close it down. But if you can make something out of it, the company is yours'," recalls Okawara. "That was 30 years ago."

Last month Okawara, 58, took a leap from her bricks-and-mortar background into cyberspace when she became chief executive officer at the new Japanese arm of eBay Inc., the San Jose, Calif.-based online auction business. She remains president and chairman at JC Foods.

Okawara, who also holds senior positions at Ohito JC Foods, Tama JC Foods, Tokyo Delica and Avon Products, was surprised when approached by eBay late last year. Not a technically oriented person, she had only toyed with tapping into the fledgling electronic commerce industry.

"Certainly eBay is on the leading edge of this new economy that is going to change the way we live and shop," Okawara said. "I wanted to be a part of it."

EBay claims more than 10 million registered users and four million items listed for sale in 4,200 categories from cars to antiques, books, movies, music, coins, dolls, jewelry, and electronics. The company, founded in 1995, has 130 employees and has separate portals in the United States, Australia, England, Germany and Japan.

Okawara took a round-about route to the top of Japan's business community and admits she "blundered" into her highly successful career. After graduating from high school in Japan she studied at Northwestern University and the University of Geneva, where she earned a law degree. But returning to Japan with her hard-won credentials she found herself out of a job. "It's pretty difficult to practice law in Japan with a Swiss law degree," she said.

Okawara in fact had a hard time finding any employment in Japan because her fluency in Japanese was not good enough, she said.

"Since nobody would hire me, I had to go into business on my own," she said.

If Okawara was a pioneer among women in Japan's work force, things are rapidly changing. She notes that about 6,000 businesses in Japan are headed by women today. The demographics are changing, she said, because women are more willing to take risks than their male counterparts in the workplace.

"Women in Japan have nothing to lose," she said. "The men have a tradition of lifetime employment security and they don't want to lose that. Women never had that security so they're jumping in with two feet."

Okawara, whose maiden name is Higa, visits Hawaii frequently.

"Tokyo is an extremely busy city and I'm moving constantly from early morning to very late at night. But once in a while I like to step back and examine life and Hawaii is the best place to do that."

Success in business seems to be a family trait. Okawara's father, Yetsuo Higa, brought Pepsi Cola franchises to Japan in the 1950s.

And her brother, Ernie Higa, owns 200 Domino's Pizza stores in Japan, operates lumber mills in the Pacific Northwest, and has other holdings in the Japan and the United States. He also heads Higa Industries Hawaii Inc., which oversees Domino's Pizza franchises in Hawaii. "My father brought us up with a can-do philosophy," Okawara said. "My brothers and I never thought there was anything we couldn't do."

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