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Nobu Asai, president of KEF Japan Photo: Dermot Killoran/Calderwood Images
executive impact

KEF punches above its weight in Japan's audio market

By Kathryn Wortley

In Japan’s mature and fiercely competitive audio market, Nobu Asai is helping high-end loudspeaker manufacturer KEF punch above its weight. While domestic and foreign brands vie to attract the country’s discerning consumers, company president Asai is adopting innovative management and leadership to help his team compete.

It is a fitting approach, as innovation is fundamental to KEF’s DNA, he says. The British company was founded in 1961 by BBC electrical engineer Raymond Cooke OBE, who wanted to make products that could reproduce recordings as natural as the original performance. From those experimental days in a Nissen Hut (a prefabricated steel structure for military use), KEF has continued to deliver cutting-edge products, earning itself recognition as a key player in the history of loudspeaker development.

About 20 years ago, those products became available in Japan under a distributor and quickly picked up a firm following. But when KEF Japan was established as a full subsidiary in 2017, Asai said it was almost like beginning the brand anew in Japan.

With heavy investment in logistics not possible, he made strategic partnerships to penetrate the market, thereby maximizing efficiency. In hiring, too, Asai overcame budget restrictions by seeking out staff that each excel in one distinct area. The result, he says, is an ideal, balanced team whose members can learn from each other—and him.

“We have a small team so, every week, we’ll decide our directives and everyone’s action plans. I then empower everyone to deliver them; I don’t micromanage, and my door is always open,” he explains.

Photo: Dermot Killoran/Calderwood Images

Fundamental to Asai’s empowerment effort is operating KEF as a flat, non-hierarchical, “paperweight” organization, with him at the top and everyone else at a level position. Each member of staff, regardless of position, is asked to lead on a project on a regular basis. They are provided with manpower, equipment and money to deliver and can work nimbly, without the need for approval from departments.

The system, which is typically used in high-tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, is important to Asai because he learned his own skills by following it while program manager for Honda’s R&D division in both Japan and Europe.

“It stretches you. It teaches ownership, dedication and confidence while helping you think about others on the team,” he said.

Within KEF, Asai also practices kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement, and believes in fostering an honest work environment where staff can share issues and ideas.

During almost 20 years working on corporate strategy at Sony, he says kaizen is proven to develop both talent and the company. Indeed, on suggesting Sony needed new offerings to meet consumer’s financial needs, Asai found himself given the opportunity to set up and run Sony Financial Services Europe, from London.

“If my staff find problems or put forward positive changes, they are given the chance to execute those changes and find solutions,” he said of his approach at KEF.

Despite recent successes, it has not always been plain sailing for Asai in his managerial career, which spans four continents.

“I try to lead by example but, in my early days, it sometimes put more pressure on me and my team because I wanted to give the perfect example. I was too hard on myself and the bar for others was too high,” he said. “I’ve now learned that you need to have a cool head—to assess the situation—and a warm heart—to understand others so everyone can move in the same direction—in order to be an effective leader.”

Photo: Dermot Killoran/Calderwood Images

Asai hopes his unique approach, gleaned over experience working for technology and manufacturing giants in Japan, Europe and the Americas, will help secure KEF’s position in Japan as a high-quality speaker maker, even as consumers’ needs change.

He recognizes that lifestyles are more varied and high-paced, with people on the move more and more. To meet those demands, he is helping KEF aim not only for innovation in sound but also for improved quality of life by providing the best sound possible for every situation. Showcasing the lifestyle possible from using KEF products is key to the brand’s continued growth.

“People want to have the convenience of having 10,000 songs in their iPhone as well as the best possible sound. That’s where we can differentiate, by giving the best opportunity to listen to it in headphones or wireless speakers,” he said. “In the 1960s, most manufacturers would decide sound quality by ear rather than data like KEF did. Because that starting point was different, we are still able to come up with unique technologies today,” said Asai, citing the company’s LSX fully wireless music system, which was released last year.

July marks two years since KEF opened its Music Gallery, in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district. Combining a showroom, shop and gallery, it is a global first for the brand. Near to the ever-evolving commercial and entertainment district of Ginza, the business district of Otemachi and the historic imperial palace, Asai says the location is a “combination of heritage, history and innovation,” much like KEF itself.

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While Japanese audio components tend to be quite good, their weakest link has always been in speaker technology.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

While Japanese audio components tend to be quite good, their weakest link has always been in speaker technology

Except earspeaker tech. Stax makes the best earspeakers in the universe, there is no comparison, except may be Sennheiser's similar electrostatic limited edition Orpheus system (but priced at 4 times of the Stax).

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Certainly the best sounding speakers I've ever owned. Absolutely superb.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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