‘I’ve learnt to change’

Ryutaro Sasa, Sloan Fellow 2021, explains why he quit TV to run the family manufacturing business


In 30 seconds:

  • Tokyo-based, former TV director and producer left the industry when his mother died suddenly in an accident, aged 40
  • He worked hard for two or three years to help his father run the company, but was handicapped by a lack of business knowledge
  • Realising he needed to acquire the necessary skills to revitalise the company, he completed the Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy at LBS
  • LBS made him believe that, even if he had to begin again, he could be at the top of the field in 10 years’ time

I was born in Paris and lived in France until I was three. When my younger brother was born we went back to Tokyo and I’ve lived there for over 40 years. All my memories of Paris are through photographs.

I started playing football when I was three and dreamt about becoming professional. In my teens I joined a youth team and practised every day. But I didn’t have the same skills as some of my team-mates who became professionals, so it didn’t happen for me.

I did a BA in history at Waseda University in Tokyo. At 24 I started my career at NTV, Japan’s largest commercial television network, and became a director when I was 27. I produced documentaries and a live morning news and entertainment show.

The programmes I produced about the Beijing and London Olympics were among my biggest achievements. I interviewed Lionel Messi in Beijing, and Usain Bolt – he set a new 100-metres world record right in front of me.

When I was 40 my mother died suddenly in an accident. I left my TV job and joined my family’s electrical-component manufacturing business. My mother always wanted me to take it over. When she passed away, I asked my father, “Do you need my help?” and he said, “Yes.” This was the first time he’d asked me for anything. My income was pretty good as a TV director, but I wanted to pay back my family for everything they’d done for me, despite having no business knowledge, so I dived in.

For two or three years I worked really hard. But I realised I had to study again to gain authentic knowledge or I wouldn’t be able to revitalise the company. That’s why I came to LBS.

‘I needed to learn how to listen to others, to understand their needs and have empathy. Doing this can boost the team tremendously!’

Becoming a full-time student again was the greatest of joys. Although my time at LBS was tough – at first, my English wasn’t so good and I struggled to keep up with the lectures – I’ve never felt so happy being able to use my time to do the studies I want.

The 100-year concept proposed by Professor Lynda Gratton really motivated me. It made me believe that even if I had to learn something completely new, I could be at the top of that field in 10 years’ time, when I am over 50.

A good leader is someone who has the madness to go down a path no one has walked before and the sanity to empower and motivate their people.

The leaders I admire include Steve Jobs; the famous speech he gave at Stanford gives me courage no matter how many times I watch it. I also admire Tadashi Yanai, the founder of Uniqlo, which he has grown to be the third-largest fashion brand in the world, with annual sales of $22 billion.

What I’ve really learned at LBS is how to change myself. I needed to learn how to listen to others, to understand their needs and have empathy. Doing this can boost the team tremendously.

I love being in London. Compared to Tokyo, it has plenty of parks and natural environments. I run 10km around Regent’s Park or Hyde Park three or four times a week. I also joined the LBS football club. I’m the only person who can play in their 40s alongside 20- and 30-year-olds.

I did voluntary work in Eritrea, one of the poorest countries in Africa. I taught football to kids at uni and there were a lot of unused footballs in the warehouses, so I took 100 balls to Eritrea on a cruise ship.

I like eating fish and chips once a week. I’ll also miss hamburgers when I return to Tokyo. I’m sorry to say I have only drunk British tea two or three times.

My favourite saying is “no rain, no rainbow”. I heard it in Hawaii – nobody cares when it starts raining there, because after the rain a rainbow appears, so they really love the rain! I’m an optimistic person. In life, after difficulties, we will surely reach a good point.

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