It’s not easy leading an essentially Japanese company from downtown Columbus, but technology certainly reduces the burden for Aflac CEO Dan Amos.
Take the insurer’s special videoconference room, sometimes called the “Japan Room,” which is located on the seventh floor of Aflac’s 19-story headquarters in Columbus.
The oval meeting desk is constructed in such a way that one half is in Columbus and the other half is in Tokyo. During a teleconference, it looks like you’re sitting directly across from execs who are halfway around the globe. The black chairs and similar wall colors on both sides of the Pacific make you feel like it really is the next best thing to being there.
I was in the room last week, when a half-dozen Japanese execs, including a translator, delivered their September sales report to Amos and his headquarters team. The images from Tokyo on this Cisco system were crystal clear. I could even see the writing on the papers of the Japanese execs, as if they were sitting in Columbus.
In the past, meetings on speaker phones were not as productive, Amos said. But the videoconference room has cut travel costs while enhancing communication. Gone are the days when he had to wonder about the hand signals and whispering among Tokyo execs before this room was created three years ago.
“It’s body language. I can tell if you’re upset,” Amos, 59, said.
At this meeting, however, there was little to be upset about. Aflac, which gets 75 percent to 80 percent of its $18.3 billion in annual revenue from Japan, has been enjoying substantial growth there after taking it on the chin a few years back. Sales have been boosted by a law passed two years ago that allows banks to sell insurance to its customers.
“Bank sales have seen tremendous growth,” Amos said. But that success carries with it a contradiction that the Japanese team was concerned about during the meeting. Last year’s fourth quarter was so strong that the chance of repeating such a performance is slim.
“I know we want more, but we’re OK with that,” Amos told them. He was not worried because he said the company already told Wall Street analysts about the likelihood of not matching the fourth-quarter comps.
In addition to regularly scheduled meetings, Amos uses the videoconference room as issues crop up in Japan. Since he lives only about five minutes from the Columbus headquarters, he said he can return to work to deal with any problems there.
“There’s an open line 24 hours a day,” Amos said. It requires coordination between execs in both countries because of the 13-hour time difference. After hours, Amos said, he’s generally available from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., which is morning in Japan.
Even with the video setup, however, he still travels to Tokyo for face-to-face encounters. Three weeks ago, he surprised 200 employees there when he removed the head of the special duck costume he was wearing at a company party. They had no idea he was the “Maneki Neko” duck — the mascot for a new medical insurance product in Japan.
“Sales were up and I’d do whatever,” Amos said. “You need to make a little fun of yourself.”
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