Akiyo Azuma worked at a seafood supplier for 10 years. That job was her first after graduating university. Her role was to negotiate prices of fish, buy and sell it at a wholesale market. Today, she heads the back office of TYPICA, a company that has “realized the seemingly impossible in quick succession,” she says. This is the story of Azuma, who has become the crucial backbone of TYPICA.
It was the summer of 2019, and Azuma had been on a year-long hunt for a new career. Having scoured through dozens of companies, she finally found a company where she genuinely wanted to work at.
“After I attended a company information session, I realized how high Mr. Goto sets his sights,” Azuma recalls, referring to Masashi Goto, CEO of TYPICA. “I decided to apply for a job here because I knew I would be able to go somewhere high if I worked at a place like this.”
During interviews, Azuma was peppered with questions asking if she really was up for the job and whether she was determined to stick it through. To these, Azuma responded: “No one knows if I can do the job until I do it. What does it matter what I think now? But at the very least, I know I’m better than everyone else here.”
“I was there to pitch myself as a product. So my theory was to draw attention to how I was different from others and where I excelled at. I’d only worked at one company before. I did have some experience in accounting, but that was in a different sector. There could’ve been someone better suited for the position than I was at that point. But I was sure I would be better than them in a few years because I knew I could improve myself step by step, day by day. That’s the point I wanted to sell.”
When Azuma started at Goto’s previous business in September 2019, the company was just about to reinvent itself. A little earlier, a myriad of problems had forced Goto to dissolve one department. That triggered a flurry of resignations. And other than Goto, the only person who stayed at the back office was Aimi Yamada, who had worked alongside him for more than 10 years. Into the near void stepped Azuma, who started out by figuring out what was normal for Goto and Yamada and making it her normal, too, as soon as possible.
Though the back office staff has shrunk from 6 members to 3 since Azuma joined, the company has recorded significant growth. Goto explains:
“Azuma has super-human capabilities. She is a person of formidable determination. She has helped Yamada to rebuild the back office while supporting me in rebuilding the services section. She has been the cornerstone of the perfect results that we are seeing now. Before she joined, we were in such a bind at one point that I was considering shutting down one business. Given that, it’s not an overstatement to say that if not for Azuma, we wouldn’t have been able to get the company back up and running.”
Before Azuma joined, she was told she would eventually take over the administrative division from Yamada, who was due to be reassigned to a different role. Now, Azuma is engaged in nearly every aspect of back office operations, from advertising, general affairs and personnel management. She says she is splitting her tasks with Yamada to complement each other.
“An efficient back office can boost the company’s earnings. If the back office ensures an environment where front-office members can feel comfortable working, then they can create new values for the business. It’s important for us to have a broader perspective than just crunching the numbers, for instance.
Right now, I’m bending over backwards just to keep up with the company’s growth. But if our logistic support helps drive up sales or widens business possibilities, then I’ll be able to feel that what I do really matters. Plus, all my coworkers go out of their way to express their gratitude for back-office work. That’s what I love about working at this company.”
Yamada, who has worked alongside Azuma, says:
“She is the kind of person who puts herself in others’ shoes and figures out what they want from her. She reads a few steps ahead and prevents a problem before it happens. I have a lot of respect for her uncompromising work ethics.”
There is something Azuma keeps reminding herself of.
“Getting used to things is a scary thing. The moment you hit your stride and become complacent, you are bound to make a mistake. I always remind myself that today may be that day. What I hate most is to slacken up halfway through a task. Even when I go about daily routines, I make it a point to do something extra to avoid repeating the same mistakes and dot the i’s and cross the t’s.”
When speaking with Azuma, a sense of tension is palpable in the air.
“My big sister once asked me what I was fighting so hard against. She makes handicrafts with beads. When I asked her how long it would take her to string together a row, she said, ‘I’ve never bothered to time it. I’m just making them because they look pretty.’ I asked her again why she doesn’t try to make the next row a little faster. Then she asked back, ‘What are you fighting so hard against? If I’m having fun, that’s enough, isn’t it?’”
But that has been her way of life from childhood. Azuma went to a public high school, many of whose graduates continue on to competitive universities in western Japan. She was top of the class by far – so much so that a teacher told her she didn’t need to listen to classes, and that she could work on whatever textbooks she wanted during classes. Another teacher even asked her to teach other students.
“I wasn’t necessarily competing with someone else. Rather, I was up against myself, studying day by day. To begin with, I’m not really interested in what others are like. So even if I had gone to a ‘rough’ school, I think I would’ve done well just the same.”
Azuma worked as a home tutor when she was a college student. She would tell her students and their parents that “it doesn’t matter where you go to high school.”
“The more important thing is to keep on studying without losing a battle against yourself,” she told them. “If you can do that, then the result will follow, regardless of whether others aren’t studying or are sleeping.”
The only point of reference Azuma compares against is herself. When she was in high school, she told her parents that she wanted to go to Kyoto Institute of Technology’s design management engineering department (now renamed). But they objected, saying that her grades were good enough to go to the prestigious Kyoto University. Azuma, meanwhile, was undeterred, thinking that university is supposed to be a place where you study, and that studying what you want is the only right decision for a student.
After graduating from KIT, she worked for 10 years at a seafood supplier at a wholesale market. That decision, too, was because she thought it was interesting.
“Unlike at supermarkets, there are no fixed prices. Instead, you negotiate a deal on the spot, buying and selling fish. I found these negotiations appealing. My main job was accounting. But since our company was short-staffed, I also played the role of a middleman to help fill a labor shortage.”
But not everything has always been so rosy. Azuma has a habit of keeping a diary. At one point, she looked back on how she lived the past year, and realized how nothing really changed from a year before. She was disappointed, and was haunted by this sense for around two years.
“Back then, I was under the intense pressure to do something, whatever it may be. I felt like I was lost.”
Azuma realized she was feeling that way because she was not doing anything. Upon that realization, she made it a personal rule to act on an idea as soon as she came up with it.
“If I felt like going somewhere, I started making preparations to go there instead of leaving it at that. No matter how busy I was at that time, I didn’t put it off. I worked to make this a habit for a while, and then I started to feel brighter and was actually able to spend a fulfilling year. I realized whether I grow or not is really up to what I do and how I think.”
We asked Azuma what, if anything, is her new goal.
“During the recruitment process, I remember Goto asking me and other applicants if we were happy. TYPICA is working to protect the lives of coffee producers around the world.
We don’t impose a limitation on ourselves. Instead, we always continue to aim high. As a member of the Back Office, I’d like to help other members to perform to the best of their abilities. There will be new members coming on board. So my role for now is to lay the foundation for them.
My responsibilities change as circumstances change. So I don’t set myself a long-term goal. The most important thing is to stay the course and pursue what I want to do. Things will work out naturally if I continue to do that. At the end of the way, I will be satisfied if I can continue to do my utmost as a part of something that keeps on expanding.