Yoshida Group CompaniesHighline Community College, Washington
By Evelyn L. KentCommunity College Times
He lived in his car. Traded karate expertise for classes. Was hated by his father-in-law and was disowned by his family. Now he’s head of a $180 million conglomerate.
Junki Yoshida, you’ve come a long way, Baby.
Founder and chief executive officer of Yoshida Group Cos. in Portland, Ore., Yoshida has five sisters and a brother who is 12 years older than he. Tired of his brother’s worn-out handy-me-downs, the young Junki complained to his mother, who told him to thank God for his brother’s castoffs. After all, he might have had no brothers and then would have had to wear his older sisters’ discarded underwear.
That conversation helped mold his life. “I try to turn everything positive,” he said.
At 19 he came to the United States on a tourist visa from Japan. He had $500 in his pocket and sold the return ticket for $750. With that he bought a Valiant, which he parked at the beach and lived in for the next few months. His English was poor, as were his pockets, so he approached Highline Community College in Des Moines, Wash., about trading karate lessons for classes.
They agreed; his English improved and he met his soon-to-be-wife Linda. (The first time he met Linda’s father, Yoshida called him Dad and swears that the man hated him for years afterward.)
One Christmas the two gave Yoshida’s family’s teriyaki sauce to friends and students as gifts. Before they knew it, they were bottling it and selling it. A company was born.
Four near-bankruptcies and 16 diversifications later, Yoshida speaks lovingly of the support that made it possible. His father-in-law cashed out his retirement account. His wife’s unwavering support and work made it possible for him to take risks. His employees’ dedication saw the company through hard times. America’s acceptance and openness of new things allowed him to flourish.
There was also a measure of good timing. Yoshida started selling his sauce in Costco stores when there were only two. The companies grew together, and now his products are sold worldwide.
Costco plans to sell a book Yoshida has written that is due to be published in the fall. It tells the story of a boy who was a gang leader and how he grew into a successful businessman by making mistakes and finding good people along the way. “It’s about how I turned my life around,” Yoshida said. “The secret is who I met.”
Today, the Yoshida Group's products range from Jones Golf bags and Forrester's Outerwear to Prison Blues accessories and garments. Services range from OIA Global Logistics customer care to Creative Edge Graphics screen printing and sublimation.
“I diversified to protect my company,” Yoshida said. All of his moves were made without benefit of market research. Rather, Yoshida relied on personal observations and gut instinct. “I am not a smart man. I think it’s the right time, right moment, and it comes down to a right feeling.”
A conversation with Yoshida is likely to include some singing (Ray Charles), some extensive talk about how good it is to be wearing his own underwear, a great deal of laughter and some advice about success.
“If you have to owe to somebody, owe to somebody who you have pay back,” he said. But most of all, don’t give up your dreams.