Thursday 30 November 2023
By Noboru Ogasa, President of Sumitomo Benelux and BJA Board Member
“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
This quote is not from me, it is from Haruki Murakami my favorite Japanese writer. This quote gives me hope in these turbulent times. The COVID-19 storm is still very much alive but I know that it will have changed our organization, Tokai Optecs in Belgium forever.
In March 2020 we lost more than 80% of our turnover in less than one week. Our production of high end lenses came to a complete stop because there was almost no demand anymore. We produce high end lenses for the whole EMEA region, country after country imposed the closure of optical shops.
As a family company the last thing we wanted to do was lay off people or betray our family values to keep the company floating. On the contrary, we decided that it is now, in these turbulent times, that we have to invest in our customers and our staff. All key personnel kept on coming to the factory and kept the distribution going of the remaining demand by our valued customers in Belgium and our distributors all over the EMEA – region. Marketing, finance and HR all worked from home.
We distributed face masks and gloves to hospitals in the region of Leuven when there was a national lack of health care supplies. We also supplied health care material to our customers, national and international, so they could open their shop in complete safety.
These are the small things we could do for our staff and customers. A more impactful decision was putting the R&D – department to work. In this new COVID -19 world Europe was confronted with face masks for the first time. As a lens manufacturer we suddenly got the urgent demand to find a solution for foggy lenses. In light speed my Japanese partner, Mr. Furuzawa, came with the solution : Defog lenses. These lenses do not fog up when you wear a face mask. We had an enormous impact in the press with this solution. Again we put family values first and distributed more than 100 frames with Defog lenses to health care staff of different hospitals. These lenses are still in high demand and not only in the health care sector. Everybody all over Europe is wearing a face mask and is confronted with this foggy lens problem.
Not only did we put R&D to work, we also did a close follow up on our competitors. What did they do, how did they react to this fast changing world? Some competitors reacted very hard. They closed down factory plants and laid off staff. They did this in the very beginning of the crisis. This gave us the opportunity to talk to people who have a long history in our industry and who have valuable contacts in our market. These people were helpless in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, sometimes stuck in a foreign country or locked up in their home without a job but with a family to take care of and bills still floating in.
When these people reached out to us, we were not afraid to invest in them, to trust them and to start building a relationship. One of these contacts resulted in what we have now called Tokai Optical MEA : our new sales office in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. In the middle of this worldwide pandemic, Tokai started a new sales office. We found people who believe in our brand, technology and company values. From this office we will coordinate our sales in Middle East and Africa.
You can see that Mr. Murakami is right, we will come out of this storm differently than we entered it.