Interview with Keishi Ikeuchi
Keishi Ikeuchi, President of Ikeuchi Organic, was born in 1949 in Imabari in Japan. In 1983, he succeeded the presidency of Ikeuchi Towel from his father, who passed away right after Keishi decided to leave Panasonic, where he had worked since graduating college. Keishi’s passion to produce quality towels led the company to establish their own brand of “IKT” by using organic cotton under the source of 100% of wind power. Ikeuchi Organic is the first Japanese company to receive the Best New Product Award at the NY home textile show (currently called NY NOW) in 2002. We interviewed Keishi about his view of being an environmentally friendly company as well as his passion for his business.
– Your organic cotton towels known as “Wind Woven Towels” were introduced in 1999 as a factory brand under the mission of utmost safety and minimal environmental burden. Also, your company is renowned as the world’s first Japanese company to be awarded the WindMade label for sourcing 100% of electricity consumption from wind power. Please tell us your company’s philosophy.
We have not particularly set our philosophy. As a manufacturing company, our products form our brand values and represent our philosophy. Our basic policy is to produce the safest products with minimal environmental burden.
At a milestone of our 60th anniversary, we officially announced to be an organic company. It means we aim to build a good relationship with all from cotton manufacturers and consumers to investors. This concept has been developed through interaction with our customers.
– Why do you stick to using organic cotton and wind power to make your towels?
We rolled out our first organic cotton towels around early 1990s. At that time, I simply thought organic cotton was good as opposed to non-organic cotton, but I was not quite sure about the reasons. As I studied cotton, I learned cotton has a tragic history. British people from East India Company who went to India were surprised to see Indian cotton clothes since England only had wool and silk at that time. Then they took slaves from their colonies to America to grow cotton, which led to slavery and the American Civil War. After slavery was abolished, cotton has been harvested by using Agent Orange. As much as 40% to 60% of pesticides consumed in the world is used in cotton fields, which is more than we can think of. Nowadays, non-organic cotton is all genetically modified. In addition, Agent Orange is used to expedite the falling of leaves for the ease of harvesting. I would like everyone to know more about these facts behind cotton.
Since I have realized the quality of organic cotton, I cannot use anything else for our towels.
– You have maintained direct and continuous relationships with cotton farmers by visiting their farms in Tanzania and India as well as donating wells to Tanzanian people. What has been their reaction?
What organic farmers really want is for their customers to continue to purchase products by gradually increasing purchasing quantities. The toughest thing for the farmers is their crops remain unsold. Therefore, they are not happy with customers who want to purchase organic cotton just because it’s trendy. In that sense, we keep our farmers happy since we buy more organic cotton year by year.
In terms of cotton, there is a great company called Remei in Switzerland, which was established by a person who spent his youth in Africa as a volunteer staff. He visited Tanzanian farmers by himself and instructed them how to make organic cotton step by step. Although we sought good organic cotton in our own way through Japanese trading companies, we found Remei, which resulted in purchasing all of our cotton from them. I’m blessed to have a chance to do business with them.
Remei used to export Tanzanian cotton to Europe and Indian cotton to Asia. So when we started business with Remei, we purchased Indian cotton from them. However, five years ago, we were asked to purchase Tanzanian organic cotton. It was around the time when we just started to launch a new series of towels called “Cotton Nouveau.” The quality of cotton is slightly different every year depending on conditions, and “Cotton Nouveau” is our original idea to enjoy unique cotton for a year like wine. I decided to roll out our first line of “Cotton Nouveau” by using Tanzanian cotton, and it made its debut in Japan in 2011. In hindsight, using the Tanzanian cotton was a good decision because Indian cotton farmers are currently facing challenges. Usually organic farmers keep good seeds from what they produced in a year to make new crops next year. However, the Indian cotton is hybrid cotton and it doesn’t produce seeds. Therefore, you need to purchase seeds every year. However, one third of seeds distributed as organic cotton in India are genetic modified and they are not authenticated to be organic. Remei inspects every single Indian cotton leaf to identify genetically modified ones and sells them as regular cotton. But it’s hard to do that to commercialized cotton in the case of such a high ratio of non-organic cotton mixtures. So Remei shifted to produce regular cotton in India. Therefore, we are currently purchasing more Tanzanian cotton.
– Your quality towels are highly acclaimed not only in Japan but also in foreign countries as shown in receiving the Best New Product Award at the NY home textile show (currently called NY NOW) in 2002. What do you think was a critical factor for the prize?
I was officially told that we were highly praised for our towels that made it possible to have vivid colors under minimal impact to the environment. It was a coincidence that we introduced the product lines at the exhibition. Our exhibition booth was a little bit spacious and to fill in the space, we displayed these vividly colored towels that we had intended to sell exclusively at a factory store in Imabari, where our company is located in Japan. We had not planned to widely distribute these towels, and we chose fifty kinds of vivid colors that are unusual for towels. Surprisingly, that product line was awarded the best prize at the show.
– Do you see any difference in reaction between customers overseas and those in Japan?
Basically I do not see any differences. Our organic cotton project called “IKT” was not popular in Japan when it started in 1999. Especially from 1999 to 2003, we sold most of our products in the U.S. In Japan it was sold only in our hometown, Imabari, and online.
Our organic cotton towels were developed in America through trial and error. When we first introduced our towels in Los Angeles in 2000, we promoted our sophisticated woven techniques rather than being organic. However, we didn’t do well in the American market. Although many American said they liked our towels, they didn’t buy it at all. Through exhibitions that we had three times a year in America, I realized when Americans said “good,” they meant “cheesy.” Then I drastically changed our style and focused on selling simple organic cotton towels in America.
Therefore, when we came back to Japan after our success in America, our product lines for the Japanese market had been already established. For the past thirty years, the Japanese towel industry was dedicated to an OEM style under the misunderstanding that towels are measured by brand names and woven techniques. It was common to have different types of towels in Japanese households, unlike in America.
However, by being led by our success in America, the shrinking of the Japanese licensing towel business and the growing popularity of Imabari towels, Japanese people have quickly adopted an American household style of simple towels.
– Your company is known for its quality products and aggressive global marketing, which is a great example for traditional Japanese manufacturing companies that are struggling to survive in this economy. Do you have any advice to Japanese companies that want to seek business opportunities overseas in the future?
Although there is a language barrier, I always recommend Japanese companies go abroad. I believe there are no other people who work harder and create better products than Japanese. The toughest thing for Japanese companies is that they have to survive in such a competitive market if they just stay in Japan. So I always suggest Japanese companies pursue opportunities abroad. If they work as hard as they do in Japan, they are more highly praised in other countries since overseas markets are less competitive. It is easy to succeed overseas when you take risks, especially in the food business. If you do Japanese food business in America in the same business model as ours, you are able to succeed. If you run a towel business abroad, it may be tough since you have to compete with me.
In general, if you have a clear concept of your products, it can be understood anywhere in the world. I believe you can sell your products in the same way as you do in Japan.
– Your company marked its 60th anniversary in 2013 and started to move forward to another 60 years. Please tell us your plans for the next 60 years, along with your areas of focus.
I think being passionate about our products is the most important thing to sustain our business. There are certain types of family business that are inherited by children. However, we are a manufacturer, and I believe the most passionate person within our company should become my successor. As a small company that I inherited from my father, we are now facing a big challenge to smoothly pass down our business to someone outside of my family. At a small family business, a child usually needs to succeed the business since all personal family properties are pledged to fund the business. So choosing the new president within our company means we cannot pledge anything personal for the business, and it is tough.
We changed our company’s name to IKEUCHI ORGANIC, Inc. in 2014. So the new president cannot do anything other than organic cotton for the next thirty years since it usually takes about thirty years to change the company’s name. Although I intentionally restricted the range of our business by our company’s name, I took out the word “towel” from our name. It implies to the prospective new president that he can produce anything other than towels. Our product lines will expand to textiles and knitting made of organic cotton.
President of Ikeuchi Organic, was born in 1949 in Imabari in Japan. In 1983, he succeeded the presidency of Ikeuchi Towel from his father, who passed away right after Keishi decided to leave Panasonic, where he had worked since graduating college. Keishi’s passion to produce quality towels led the company to establish their own brand of “IKT” by using organic cotton under the source of 100% of wind power. Ikeuchi’s organic cotton towels are highly acclaimed not only in Japan but also in America and Europe, as it became the first Japanese company to receive the Best New Product Award at the New York home textile show (currently called NY NOW) in 2002. As a president who has rebuilt a company that experienced the Japanese version of Chapter 11 in 2003, the success of Ikeuchi Organic inspires Japanese local businesses that are facing challenges to expand their companies.