Meet Japan's First Self-Made Woman Billionaire
Four decades ago, Yoshiko Shinohara – armed with a high school degree and secretarial experience in two different continents – started a temp-staffing company in her one-bedroom Tokyo apartment. Now, at age 82, she’s become Japan’s first self-made woman billionaire
She recently retired as chairman of staffing company Temp Holdings, which had revenues of $4.5 billion last year. The Tokyo-listed stock popped 11.5% in the past month – making Shinohara's 25% stake, in addition to dividends accrued over the years, worth just over $1 billion. A spokesperson for Temp Holdings confirmed Shinohara’s shareholding.
Shinohara joins just 26 other self-made women billionaires in Asia, all of whom are from China or Hong Kong. Female entrepreneurs from South Korea and Singapore, for example, have yet to join the elite three comma club.
The journey wasn't easy. Born in 1934, she grew up during World War II. Her father, a school headmaster, died when she was eight years old. Her mother worked as a midwife and raised Shinohara as a single mother, never remarrying again. She graduated from high school and was married briefly in her 20s, but soon divorced. Instead of staying in Japan, she spent time in England and later Australia, working as a secretary.
Eventually she returned to Tokyo, and in 1973 she started a small part-time work agency from her cramped apartment, a 258 square foot one-bedroom. "Education and women working always were in the back of my mind," she told Forbes Asia in 2015. "The importance of women being able to work as well as raise children left an indelible impression." Business was slow at first. and Shinohara had to teach English at night to make ends meet. After five years, the business moved into its first office space.
Shinohara's business addressed an underlying issue in Japanese society, according to Temp Holdings spokeswoman Yoko Somura. Back then, women typically quit working after getting married so "many women of certain age felt ‘uncomfortable’ to continue their careers" and it left women who wanted to continue with few highly skilled job opportunities. "Our company was able to grow by matching Japanese women’s underlying motive," Somura added.
At the beginning, Shinohara only employed women. But then sales started to slow down. "All temps were female in the early days, and our firm’s managers were drawn from the ranks of former temps. Japanese female executives are somewhat different now, but back then, they weren’t always willing to go out and seek new business. They tended to take more of a defensive posture, protecting the company’s gains rather than moving forward. That is not healthy," she told Harvard Business Review in 2009. By the late 1980s, despite her managers' concerns, Shinohara hired more men to balance out the business and sales increased.
During the 1990s – known as Japan's "Lost Decade" of economic stagnation – Temp Holdings took off as companies looked to cut costs by hiring part-time workers instead of salaried employees. In 2008, Temp Holdings went public, listing on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Within two years, Temp Holdings acquired 4% of U.S.-based staffing company Kelly Services, minting a strategic partnership that expanded in 2012 with a joint venture focused on staffing in China, Hong Kong and South Korea.
Today, Temp Holdings provides recruiting, outsourcing, consulting and systems development. But part-time staffing is its largest segment, accounting for 78% of the $2.4 billion in revenue last quarter. The company has contracts at 27,000 companies in Japan and 13 other countries, including the U.S., China, India and Australia.
Temp Holdings’ footprint in Japan could well grow even more over the next decade. The company’s research arm predicts that Japan's aging population will create big opportunities for the company. It forecasts that Japan's workforce will soon face a 5.83 million person shortfall - and temporary staffing could help fill those gaps as they arise.
Shinohara, who became chairman emeritus in April 2016, never remarried and has no children. In 2014, she gave away about 5% of the company's stock to create the Yoshiko Shinohara Memorial Foundation, which endows scholarships for students studying to become nurses, daycare staff and social workers.
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