Kao Corporation is the household consumer products giant in Japan but, if you live outside its home country, you’re more likely to have heard of the brands in its portfolio, such as Jergens, Curél, Bioré, and John Frieda, than the company itself.
The fact isn’t lost on Karen Frank, the President of Kao USA, who is responsible for the company’s mass beauty care business in North America and Europe.
“In Japan, we’re this big player but when you get into our other markets, we’re mostly the small player,” she smiles. Luckily, the executive has a passion for underdog brands, something she has nurtured since leaving her decade-plus career with Procter & Gamble.
“I actually acquired a brand from P&G and launched it as my own business,” she explains. “I was the absolute smallest player in the world.”
Karen joined Kao in 2009 and, when she was promoted to President in early 2020, she became the first female to hold such a senior-level position within the organization.
A love of the Kao portfolio of brands, as well as the “love and care and passion that our employees put into them,” Karen says, is what first attracted her to the company 12 years ago. And it’s these very same factors that continue to drive her today.
“Internally, I call our people our superpower,” she shares. “They are a group of people that give their all to whatever they do. We say they simply care more. They are passionate and relentless about delivering the best experience possible for our consumers. And they have that same passion outside of the company – I am continually blown away with the level of giving back our people do in their communities.”
The Japanese term wakuwaku, translated as the “positive and excited feeling”, is used to describe how Kao looks to inspire its 33,000 global employees.
“It’s a company that does the right thing, not the easy thing, but beyond that, it really believes that things must start with the employee first, and why caring more matters,” she shares. It’s one of a number of key Japanese concepts that now form part of Karen’s business vocabulary. Another is genba, or “being closest to the consumer”.
She looks to harness the potential of the Japanese parent company, bringing new product experiences to consumers in order to make Kao a force in the North American and European markets. Kirei, or “a gentle, sustainable, more beautiful way of life encompassing responsibility, care, innovation and honesty” is also a term that guides her.
“It’s a word we’ve broadly adopted across the organization as we want to help more and more people live in this way,” she reveals. One place this is visible is in a recent environmental, social and governance strategy, called the Kirei Lifestyle Plan, which has been designed to support changing consumer lifestyles.
Sustainability is a topic that has always been at the core of the company’s operations: Kao Corporation has been named as one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies by the Ethisphere Institute ever since the list was first compiled in 2007.
I call our people our superpower.
“Kao’s approach to sustainability is holistic and is about walking the right path and doing the right things, whether that’s for the environment or for society,” Karen says, echoing the words of recently appointed CEO Yoshihiro Hasebe, who has spoken publicly of creating maximum value with minimum environmental impact. Looking to the future, the company is “thinking differently about our brands and the spaces where they can play”, she confirms.
“We are definitely adding to our portfolio, expanding into health and wellness, letting more people experience more of our products.” Buoyed by a COVID-19-driven increase in demand for many of its everyday essential beauty products such as hand and body lotion, business has been strong, and the company met its 2020 budget expectations.
“We’re in a great position to grow and help our consumers through these new times. I am grateful for how we’ve been able to perform in the pandemic and it’s another reason we first value our truly special employees,” Karen enthuses.
“I feel like this company has amazing things to offer consumers, we just need more consumers using our products more often,” she points out. “Expect to see a lot of growth coming from our company, a lot of new spaces, a lot of innovation happening.”
And there’s no doubting that it will all be achieved following the principle of yoki-monozukuri, or “the continuous improvement of high-quality products in the Kao way”.