Mark Hiroshi Willis is President of Diama diamond company. We discover his unique business model and entrepreneurial journey in Japan.
By Peter Harris
Like so many long-term residents in Japan, Mark Hiroshi Willis’ first job here, back in 1991, was teaching English. Although he enjoyed the job, Willis was a qualified gemologist and had always known that his professional future lay with diamonds. This brought him to a crossroads: find a job in the industry, or move to the countryside and perfect his Japanese language skills. His dilemma was quickly resolved however, when he landed a position with Indian diamond company Diminco as a De Beers ‘sightholder’ (purveyor of polishing services). Willis’ first role was in sales before he moved into buying, a privileged position for a non-family, non-Indian staff member. After a few years, hungering for work with bigger diamonds, he moved to another company, Allied Diamonds, a Belgium based sightholder with its own mine. He eventually took over the entire Japan operation, a move that included the acquisition of the jewelry wing of Mitsui & Co. This acquisition had a hint of personal irony for Willis, Mitsui being the company at which his mother had tried to organize him a position with when he first came to Japan.
In 2003, after a disagreement with his partners in Belgium, Willis decided it was time to go solo: “Also at that time I had just had a baby girl, and it was actually my wife who supported me and gave me the strength to start my own company. I had always wanted to have my own business from when I was a little kid, but to make the final decision is always the hardest. So with her support, I made the jump.”
From employee to entrepreneur
Initially, Willis’ new business, Diama, was concerned with what he had always done—diamond trading at the retail, wholesale and private dealer levels. When asked what was the hardest part about the decision to embark on an entrepreneurial venture, Willis is unequivocal about the importance of self-consciousness. “Once you decide that you are going to do it, once you know that this is what you are doing, that’s it; it’s all easier from there,” he says. He believes that after breaking the psychological barrier, everything happens almost by inertia.
While having Japanese skills has been beneficial, Willis doesn’t see fluency in the language as essential to setting up a business in Japan. “If you have the drive and the passion, you can get things done—people always say ‘if only I had the X level of language ability or Y amount of capital….’ but in reality, you just have to take the plunge and live the dream.” His feelings about the size and scope of his business are similar—he believes it takes just as much time and energy to build a small business, so why aim for less than building a big-brand multinational?
However, Willis has learned to expand the company as necessary. He has also learned to be nimble in terms of pace and strategy. A couple of years ago he had some large shows coming up and felt it was time to really expand. But the market took a turn for the worse. The current economic climate is bad for the diamond industry as consumers, prompted by global price hikes, are cutting back on luxury expenditure. At the industrial level, corporations are spending with noted caution and the diamond industry has been badly affected by the credit crunch, price hikes and labor issues. Sensing a change in the wind and frustrated by a sales team that was not reaching its full potential, Willis decided to cut down his operation as quickly as he had inflated it. He scaled back until it was just himself and his wife and as a result, although his company is smaller, his business is bigger and profit margins are healthy.
Engaging the market
So how is Diama managing to prosper at a time when many within the diamond industry are struggling? Firstly, the cutbacks helped, but hand-in-hand with this was Willis’ decision to create a niche side business— selling engagement rings to the expat community in Tokyo. Interestingly, it all started when an unsuspecting banker tried to pick up Willis’ wife—he and Willis ended up becoming friends and he later provided a few of the banker’s colleagues with engagement rings. Buying an engagement ring can be a daunting prospect, and not knowing Japanese or Tokyo can make it even harder. Thus, for foreign men with matrimony on their mind, the presence of an independent, English-speaking industry professional, who can get stones at wholesale prices, spread like wildfire. Willis is candid about his lack of need for marketing: “All my clients have come through word-of-mouth and to be honest, that suits me too.”
“Once you’ve crossed the line, it’s very difficult to go back to working for someone else”
Although he is still involved on the retail and wholesale side, private clients are gradually becoming Willis’ focus and he plans to use this base to launch his own, more diverse range of jewelry in the near future. And the job is obviously one that Willis enjoys. He organizes his own time, is privy to the romantic designs of budding husbands-to-be and often becomes friends with the couples, seeing them through from engagement to wedding. Willis explains, “I get to be part of some really heartwarming stories and have made great friends through my work.”
Would he ever go back to working for a company? “Not at all. Once you’ve crossed the line, it’s very difficult to go back to working for someone else. In fact, I almost don’t consider my job as working—I could look at diamonds all day long and have some amazing experiences, and if I wake up and think ‘today would be a good day to go on a bike ride with my daughter,’ I can.” JI