CEO Column

Today for tomorrow



Today for tomorrow

Our company provides a variety of information and services related to what are referred to as end of life activities, and one of them is the Good Pre-need Contract (procedures following my death). We launched this service to address concerns about the future of the growing number of elderly people living on their own. While we don’t have a great deal of exposure and don’t spend a penny on advertising, we receive inquiries on a daily basis. In our country’s aging society, the number of elderly singles has already topped three million, and, certainly, this number will only continue to grow. Many people live with the anxiety of wondering who will know what became of them, who will oversee their cremation or funeral service, where their remains will be interred, and who will deal with the mountain of paperwork afterward. As we have been contacted by many people who are worried about these issues, we think that our company—which advocates infrastructure for end-of-life activities—should provide support in some form.

In the course of our efforts, however, we have learned that it is very difficult to offer such assistance as a business. We’re kind of caught in a Catch-22 situation. There is the question of when to receive payment for a service, for instance. We can’t just take the money without having provided the service. By the same token, we can’t receive payment because the customer has already passed on by the time we provide the service. We also need to know for sure when the service will be needed—at the time of the customer’s death—but we can’t wait for them to contact us. So, one major issue is the measures we can take to achieve this. The problem is compounded by the fact that many are generally reluctant to do these things because they require the assistance of lawyers and other professionals, but the benefits seem to be outweighed by the burdens.

Faced squarely with these many challenges, the person at our company responsible for the service will appeal to management about the difficulties of undertaking this as a business. This is not necessarily an indictment of the competence of the individual. Everyone is indeed intimidated by the hurdles needing to be negotiated in overcoming various challenges, conducting business properly, and ultimately being profitable. But if the company’s goal is not to secure a profit but to achieve its mission, then this decision represents a critical one for the company.

A fact we should keep in mind concerning this initiative is that this is a major social issue. In Japan, the continued growth of the elderly single population will drive like growth in the need for this service. We claim that our most important mission is to help relieve people’s anxiety by addressing these problems and offering them the appropriate information and services. Given that, if we abandon our efforts because, from a business perspective, it is not worth the effort, we have no right to represent ourselves as a component of the infrastructure for end-of-life activities. That’s why I’ve lit a fire under the people driving this highly challenging initiative.

As you read this, you’re certainly thinking that I’m simply asking the people in charge to provide the service regardless of profitability because it is our mission. The fact is that this is not the case. While we may incur losses in the short term, I believe it will be a profitable business in the medium to long term, and here’s why.

This business does present us with numerous issues, but there is a great need for it. My experience has taught me that it is important to remain optimistic. We can navigate turbulent conditions provided we keep our wits about us. Advances in technology may aid us in surmounting challenges, and if there are legal hurdles, then might I be so bold as to suggest that the laws be changed. More important than anything else is that it is meaningful for employees to experience racking their brains to think outside the box. Ultimately, if we are not able to turn this service into a profitable business, we hope that we will earn the sympathy of our customers. Ideally, this would then lead to those same customers potentially purchasing the services in future end-of-life situations.

Simply stated, efforts made to resolve social issues lead to acquiring empathy from society, which then naturally means future sales and profits. Shouldn’t this be incorporated into the thinking of the corporations that are currently touting SDGs and ESGs? Having said that, the goal is not to gain sympathy.

It would be unfair to expect business managers working daily to meet their numerical targets to think this way, but I think it is important for management to view the situation from a medium- to long-term perspective and be aware of sales and profits that aren’t yet seen. The reason I can think this way is not because I’m particularly capable, but because I’m an owner. If I were a manager on a salary, working for an organization where the current and subsequent fiscal year’s results go under the microscope, I would most likely recommend against investing in such a business.

Hirotaka Shimizu
Chairman and CEO
Kamakura Shinsho, Ltd.