When American Chuck Grafft and his wife Kelly started a co-op in the late 1980s to import items that they and their friends in the foreign community missed most from home (bagels, breakfast cereal and peanut butter), they probably had no idea that more than 20 years later, their business would be booming, offering more than 40,000 items to thousands of families ordering several thousand items every week.
Japan Today hears more from Grafft about his success story.
Why did you start the Foreign Buyers’ Club?
Kelly and I started the FBC to help those of us in the community who missed things from home. It was like a hobby for the first few years. We took two years to get set up and get approval to import items.
How has business been so far this year?
Fairly steady. We have about the same number of orders but less items per order.
What tend to be your best-selling items all year-round?
All the breakfast cereals and diet items -- recently a lot of the healthy items that are big in the U.S. -- and a lot of organic products.
What percentage of your customers are foreign?
We estimate about half.
What sort of feedback do you get from customers? For example, are you constantly getting requests to stock this or that product?
Thankfully lots of nice comments and appreciation for being able to get almost anything for people- the range of what we get is enormous especially since we started Madi’s ReMailing Service.
Has the March 11 disaster affected your business in any way?
At first we saw a drop, as I think everyone was focused on finding out what had happened. Then things took off a bit as people realized the impact and the need to have a stock of items on hand. In Tokyo, many realized that they are still on the cusp of the big one (which we have all been expecting), but this one was not that.
Was there a rush of orders for disaster emergency kits and bottled water?
Not at first but about two weeks later when the water in Tokyo was found to be unhealthy for infants, we sold about 1,000 cases of imported U.S. water.
Looking back at the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, what did that do to your business?
Well, it was major. About one-quarter of our staff had homes damaged or destroyed. Our office was messed up, but OK. We moved operations outside of the main Kobe area for about six weeks. One funny thing was the way we had to receive our weekly air shipments with documents and paperwork from the U.S. We had them all sent to one of our workers in Kyoto who would take the train in as close as he could and then had a bike he would use to come the last 10 miles or so to the office -- then back again at night to haul things out.
Did you think about leaving Japan as a result or moving your business to another location, either temporarily or permanently?
Temporarily we did -- up to our home which was just on the edge of the most affected area. But we never thought of leaving, though.
How long did it take you to rebuild?
That’s hard to say as it was incremental, and this situation up north will be the same. It took months to feel like it was basically back to normal, but even then everything took longer. The expressway took about a year to rebuild, so traffic was a mess for a long time and something many would not think of is the time it took for every meeting we would have. We always had to start by taking time to ask how they had been and how is it for you now? That was important but really changed the pace of life and work.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs such as yourself who have suffered damage in the Tohoku disaster?
Pray and give us a call and we’ll see what we can do to help.
Do you have a plan in case your area is hit by another disaster?
I would not say it's a plan like big companies have, but we do have off-site backups and water and emergency kits, so there is some level of preparation. Far more than what we had in 1995.
As an entrepreneur, are you bearish or bullish on the future of Japan?
I came in 1985 and so have seen what have been called the “golden years” and then the tough years. There are always businesses that do well and those that need to change to match the times. Japan is going to be a good place for most of us who are alive now and after that, I think it will still be a good place to work and live, but we’ll need to learn Chinese.
How do you market your business? Do you advertise?
We have almost always relied almost completely on word of mouth.
What does your LA office do?
They receive all the goods we order and send them on. These days we also do the buying for many of the international schools in Japan and other parts of Asia. This is a division most don’t even really know about, but it keeps LA super busy and is about one-third of our business now.
Is your business a 7-day-a-week job?
In a lot of ways, it’s not like working at a regular job One could probably say it's like having kids 24/7.
How do you like to relax when you are not working?
Playing with my dogs, kids and wife.© Japan Today