In Hiroshima Prefecture, the town of Kumano has a history of brush making going back more than 200 years. Mr. Takamoto, the 5th head of a renowned brush making family, developed unique “makeup brushes” that allow users to apply makeup freely and naturally, thus imparting an unprecedented pleasant feel against their skin. By creating a distribution network and opening up its own new market, while continually focusing its efforts on mass production, Hakuhodo has achieved an in-house production capacity of 500,000 brushes a month at its own factory, and thus occupies an impressive 60% share of the worldwide market for these brushes.
Hakuhodo’s brushes are supplied to most major cosmetics makers on an OEM basis (original equipment manufacturer supplying products to be sold under retailer brands), and thus used by the customers of such cosmetic products throughout the world. At the same time, the company has put considerable efforts toward nurturing their own brand ahead of other brush makers. As a pioneer in promoting online sales and mail-order systems, Hakuhodo has rapidly increased their base of regular customers in Japan, Europe, and the U.S.
Hakuhodo, Ltd. http://www.hakuho-do.co.jp/index.html
Founded in 1974 by Mr. Kazuo Takamoto, who broke away from his family business. Based on its policy of “brushes are tools,” the company produces and sells brushes for traditional handicrafts such as lacquer painting and ceramic painting, as well as a wide variety of brushes for makeup, calligraphy, industrial use, and other applications. In 1982, the company launched its own brand of brushes. The ‘Hakuhodo’ name became widely known after concluding an OEM contract with MAC of Canada in 1995, and they now supply products for about 70 companies on an OEM basis. For the purpose of disseminating information about traditional Japanese handcrafts and tool manufacturing, the company began publishing quarterly journals in 2003.
MAC products are popular worldwide. No, this is not the computer maker or fast-food hamburger chain. MAC (Makeup Artist Cosmetics) is a Canadian cosmetics company with a wide-ranging base of consumers from professional makeup artists to ordinary users. Hakuhodo is the manufacturer that produces the makeup brushes sold under the MAC brand. Yet, the process leading up to the current situation was wrought with challenges for Mr. Takamoto, the founder of Hakuhodo.
“Around the time we started our business, most brush makers were subcontractors. Sometimes we received huge orders from wholesalers; otherwise, our business was quiet. Since our income and working hours were unstable, I felt sorry for the employees. The price competition was severe, and we had cash flow problems. That was the situation in those days.”
He wanted to make marketable brushes of high quality, not the complimentary ones that come with makeup pallets. However, when he visited cosmetics companies carrying his brushes, he was always turned away at the door. He was shut out of the complex and entrenched distribution system employed in the cosmetics industry. He also scanned cosmetics magazines to find the names of professional makeup artists in order to seek direct negotiations with them. But no one wanted to do business with him saying, “The quality is excellent but mass production will be impossible.” The original brand that he set up was relatively unknown, except among a few
“Once a professional makeup artist showed me his favorite brush case. All his brushes were our products. I was so excited. There were still many conventional business practices observed in the small cottage industry of cosmetic brushes. A subcontractor with its own brand trying to do business with major brands in Japan was something unheard of in those days.”
One day while traveling on a Shinkansen bullet train and reading a magazine, he found an article about a Japanese makeup artist working in New York. He asked his nephew who was studying there to “find this artist,” and then he went to the U.S. armed with his favorite brushes. The artist was so deeply impressed by the high quality that he told Mr. Takamoto about an interesting cosmetics company in Canada. Then Mr. Takamoto called his friend in Canada and asked him to “find the company’s contact.” His friend responded by saying, “Hey, Canada is a huge place.” Still, one month later he found the company’s address, and Mr. Takamoto subsequently visited their office in Toronto to engage in direct negotiations.
“Being a makeup artist himself, the president readily understood the level of quality. I was asked, however, if I could really make these brushes. In response, I told him that I was the one who made the brushes (laughingly).”
Finally, an OEM supply contract was concluded directly with a major cosmetics company without involving any wholesalers.
The traditional skill of feeling the tips of hairs and removing poor quality hairs using a razor, which is repeated throughout the entire process of making a "makeup brush" of the highest quality, thus giving a pleasant feel to the skin.
It was not mechanization that cleared the hurdle of “mass-producing a large variety of makeup brushes having uniform quality.” It was segmenting the production process and employing tool-handcrafting skills, based on the use of traditional brush-making technology. In line with their slogan, “ours is the fude (‘high quality handcraft brush’ in Japanese) not the brush whose tips are cut to alignment,” the company conducted the painstaking process of manually aligning the tips of the brushes instead of simply cutting them. This process involves the skillful selection and removal of defective or bent hairs by using the sensitivity of fingertips. This task is repeated throughout the entire production process, resulting in 30 to 50% of the original hairs at the beginning of the process eventually being removed, and thus ensuring high quality. A specially designed, handcrafted wooden tube called Koma is used in this process where the tips of brushes are arranged in a spherical form.
“All these tools and processes are the results of continuous trial and error for refinement. When engrossed in handcrafting, many ideas suddenly come to you out of nowhere. Our production method was established like that (laughingly).”
Mr. Takamoto personally inspects all brushes bearing the company brand. According to him, he needs not visit the factory since, by inspecting the products, he can even discern the physical or emotional condition of those making the brushes. The brushes are quite sensitive products that clearly reflect the spirit of monodzukuri. Despite being born into a family of traditional Japanese brush craftsmen, his older brother first inherited the business. Consequently, upon graduating from university Mr. Takamoto joined a construction company to fulfill a dream he nurtured since being a young teenager.
One year later, however, the family brush-making business became quite busy, necessitating his return to help out. His growing dissatisfaction about the way the business was run in the industry intensified to the point where he broke away from the family business in order to preserve traditional brush-making techniques backed by traditional skills and high quality.
“I think the Japanese are genetically talented for high quality monodzukuri, but making things is just a part of business: you must conduct transactions like purchasing parts or selling products. The innate ability of the Japanese to produce goods is competitive on a worldwide scale. The problem is how to materialize such ability. For example, in a company if you really like your job, and then you naturally start thinking of ways to make it better or identify some problems. That is the starting point, I think. You will also think about what you wish to do with it or how you would like to make things. Once you are aware of certain problems in the industry, you can think about how to overcome these problems. Anyone can like his or her job since it requires nothing special. Look at me, I was told to come home to help the business and did so reluctantly at first.”
Recently, he has been concerned about the need to preserve Japan’s traditional craftsmanship and its tool culture that has been cultivated along with that craftsmanship, and how to pass it on to succeeding generations. He stresses the need to take action and overcome problems once you become aware of them. Mr. Takamoto’s challenge will continue for the rest of his life.