Aflac goes high-tech to run Japan operation from Columbus

Aflac's special videoconference room helps communication between Columbus and Tokyo. Chris Graham/Aflac

Aflac's special videoconference room helps communication between Columbus and Tokyo. Chris Graham/Aflac

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.

Aflac CEO Dan Amos surprises Tokyo employees when he removes mascot costume.

Aflac CEO Dan Amos surprises Tokyo employees when he removes the mascot costume he was wearing.

“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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9 comments Add your comment

robert daniell

October 19th, 2010
11:21 am

Ohhhhh, great….just what we need…banks and insurance companies in bed with each other….and coming after us! The way my premiums have been going up…over 25 % in just two years!!! You can take that duck and stick it where the sun don’t shine!

Danny O

October 19th, 2010
11:39 am

Why does that duck costume have red ears? If it is supposed to be a beckoning cat, then it is way off. Cats don’t have beaks.

A.C.

October 19th, 2010
12:05 pm

@Danny O – it’s the AFLAC duck dressed as the traditional Japanese Beckoning Cat (also known as the Lucky Cat).

MRM

October 19th, 2010
2:02 pm

@ robert daniell – Banks have been able to sell insurance and vice versa since the passage of Gramm-Leach Bliley in 1999. The article refers to a similar bill passed in Japan two years ago. But thanks for the typical “my insurance is too high” rant.

RGB

October 19th, 2010
2:09 pm

Great use of technology that helps a customer-responsive company become even more so. Keep growing!

TnGelding

October 19th, 2010
3:25 pm

Good for Aflac. Anything to increase productivity and reduce costs. I’m surprised the Japanese have fallen for the insurance spiel so hard, tho.

Danny O

October 19th, 2010
3:50 pm

@A.C. – That is dumb. Either you are a beckoning cat or you are a duck. There is no such thing as a beckoning duck. Thought I made that clear in my first post.

Dedicated Aflac Employee - Stein.

October 20th, 2010
7:32 am

Obviously with you replying to this post, you are located here in America and do not have a complete understanding of Japanese marketing/culture. Aflac’s American duck did not match Japanese culture as well as Alfac would like it to, primarily because the American duck shouts A-f-l-a-c which seems too forceful to the Japanese. Therefore, Aflac’s marketing department did not just wake up one morning and decide to create the “Maneki Neko” duck. They put extensive research in what would be a more socially acceptable mascot in Japan and found that the look and sound of the “Maneki Neko” duck would be much more accepted in Japan.

Lisa R.

October 20th, 2010
8:44 am

I’ve had an aflac policy for over 10 years, and my rates have never gone up with them. this is a wonderful idea aflac; by doing things like this, you keep the cost down on the policies and it is appreciated.