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Meet the Dutch businessman out to take New Japan Pro-Wrestling global

When Dutch businessman Harold Meij left Takara Tomy Co. at the end of last year he was at the peak of his game. As president and CEO of the Japanese toy giant, he had successfully turned the loss-making company around to profitability.

For a man still in his early fifties and with such a decorated business career, including time as a senior vice president of Coca-Cola Japan Co., he could surely write his own ticket.

But many wonder why Meij would choose to become head of New Japan Pro-Wrestling Co., a company dwarfed by the firm he ran as one of the first foreign nationals to lead a first-section listed Japanese company with close to $ 2 billion worth of sales.

(Harold Meij)[New Japan Pro-Wrestling Co.]

«So it’s like, ‘Wait, why do you want to do that again?'» said Meij in a recent interview with Kyodo News. «People are very surprised to hear that I made this move to begin with. The conclusion was it was absolutely the right move to make,» the 54-year-old said of the NJPW franchise he took over in May this year.

«The key thing is I see the potential of how a brand such as New Japan Pro-Wrestling, which is the largest pro-wrestling company in Japan, second in the world (after World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.), can deliver something unique to everywhere in the world.»

Born in the Netherlands, Meij came to Japan because of his father’s work when he was 8 years old. He got his first taste of Japanese pro-wrestling on prime-time TV with the likes of superstars such as Antonio Inoki and «The Destroyer.» It was a pastime that would develop into a passion decades later as an adult working in Japan.

«The wrestling at the time compared to what it is now was quite simple. You had the ‘good guy’ and you had the ‘bad guy.’ And at that time, since Japan was still in a growth phase, the bad guys tended to be the foreigners and the good guys tended to be Japanese wrestlers. It was very black and white.»

Meij, who lived in Japan, Indonesia and the United States in his youth — and speaks six languages fluently, including English and Japanese — said his first brush with pro-wrestling floored him.

«As a kid, you see it in comics and you see it with superheroes but you don’t see it in real life. They really hit each other and slam each other, and all that. That’s what really got me as a kid.»

While the sport left its mark on Meij, it would be decades before he fell head over heels for Japanese pro-wrestling. It was his wife, a Japanese national, who suggested he watch the new and improved version, which for him was like seeing anime characters spring to life.

«When I happened to see it about 10 years ago I was so surprised how much wrestling had changed, how much more sophisticated it had become. In the old days there were a lot of power moves, hitting and slapping with the arms, but now you see a lot of aerial combat, you see a lot of technical wrestling, you even see a lot of comical wrestling. Even kids today see that and it’s like Dragon Ball in real life,» he said with a laugh.

New Japan Pro-Wrestling, a company established in 1972, attracted a wide audience early on when its bouts were broadcast live during prime time, but its presence diminished as more and more of the bouts were shown late at night.

Although it had sales of about 4 billion yen (about $ 36 million) in the 1997 fiscal year, it was overshadowed by other combat sports such as mixed martial arts and K-1 boxing, and earnings dropped to as low as 1.1 billion yen by fiscal 2011.

The company began its resurgence when collectible game and trading card company Bushiroad Inc. acquired NJPW in 2012. Its popularity grew again through new promotional activities, including its hit on-demand video streaming platform.

New Japan estimated record high profits of 4.9 billion yen in the year ending July 2018 with Meij as the first foreign-born president and CEO at the helm.

Meij, who began his career with Heineken Japan and also sold tea for Unilever Japan before serving as an executive with Sunstar and Coca-Cola Japan, is known for his promotional savviness in brand marketing. According to an article in the Nikkei he possessed the «Steve Jobs Effect» on employees at Takara Tomy.

He joined Takara Tomy in 2014, when he became Chief Operating Officer and was appointed president and CEO the next year. Through the introduction of over «100 innovations,» concepts he still holds dear, the company recorded its highest operating profit in eight years, earning 13.1 billion yen in fiscal 2017.

Content with his achievements, it was time to embark on a new mission. But after receiving a call from New Japan owner and Bushiroad founder Takaaki Kidani asking him to take over, Meij struggled with the decision — not so much for business reasons, but because he loves pro-wrestling so dearly.

«When you love pro-wrestling like I do as a fan, it’s totally different from running it as a company. But I thought I could really make a big difference in the industry. At Coca-Cola I was in charge of brands, at Takara Tomy I was in charge of a company. Here, I’m almost in charge of an industry. As a businessman having the potential of changing a whole industry is quite exciting.»

In the end, Meij took the job because of what he sees as New Japan’s potential for growth and the marketing abilities he believes he brings to the table. But he also wanted to ease fans’ worries that NJPW will somehow lose its edge because he is a foreigner. What sets him apart from Japanese managers?

«As a Westerner, I have much more of a background in brand marketing. It’s something that Japanese companies are not that strong at. They’re very good at creating products, unique, creative products, and they add a name to it, a brand, but that brand isn’t as important to them.»

While at Takara Tomy, for example, Meij taught his employees the importance of making products «ageless,» «borderless» and «timeless.» That change in skill sets, including having a vision to expand overseas — especially in a country like Japan with a shrinking population — can be the difference between success and failure, he explained.

«When the product doesn’t sell anymore, Japanese companies throw it away but they also throw away the brand. Whereas, in the West we think totally that the brand is forever and the product can change and update. That’s what you’re investing in.»

For pro-wrestling, just as it was with toys at Takara Tomy, building a brand means building up «characters» and creating drama around the wrestlers. The upcoming wrestlers, or the «Young Lion» cadets, are trained «physically and mentally» in stables three to five years before they can even debut.

«They all have real life struggles you can find out about on the net. A wrestler might have broken his arm or lost his match to this other guy and that’s why they hate each other. So there’s a lot of story and drama being built around it. Even what they wear, their characters are more sophisticated than they were 30 years ago.»

New Japan does about 150 days of tournaments a year, featuring seven to 10 bouts per day, involving megastars such as Hiroshi Tanahashi, as well as many foreign wrestlers. About half a million spectators come annually to «experience» tournaments.

Ten percent of its audience are children and 30 to 40 percent are women, with the brand transcending age, sex and culture, Meij said. Of 100,000 on-demand video subscribers, half are from overseas.

«Our tickets are almost always sold out. So our strategy is to bring wrestling to your home,» Meij said. «That is where TV, the internet and video on-demand play a key role because no matter where you are in the world, as long as you have internet access, you can watch and experience our matches.»

Compared with other pro-wrestling companies, such as WWE, Meij touts NJPW’s uniqueness, since it seldom relies on gimmicks such as wrestler «mic performances.» He says his wrestlers are the «actual people you see in real life.»

Although NJPW has made some progress in marketing its brand of «strong-style wrestling» overseas, there is still a huge potential for growth, starting with breaking through the language barrier on an emotional level with fans, Meij said.

Even though pro-wrestling is widely considered a form of sports entertainment, which mixes athleticism with theatrical performance in matches with predetermined outcomes to heighten entertainment, Japanese pro-wrestling, Meij argues, is a different animal.

«This is Japanese wrestling, which is very unique. People don’t want to just see a show, they want to see real wrestling. I think that’s a core difference. We’re not a show, we’re wrestling. I don’t like to use the word entertainment, either. We are a sport. As a result of that sport, it is entertaining.»

In July, New Japan hosted a tournament at the Cow Palace, south of San Francisco, with about 6,000 fans in attendance — the largest number ever for any Japanese production overseas, according to Meij. In April 2019, the company will hold an event at Madison Square Garden in New York City and has already sold out 16,000 seats.

«We haven’t officially mentioned this, but if you look on the internet it’s all over that those 16,000 seats sold out in just 16 minutes,» he said. «That shows the power of the brand with the fans.»

So what does the future hold? Meij hammered home the point it will be about more brand marketing, including game merchandising, and building a team with more English speakers with expertise similar to his own to boost the company’s overseas presence.

«We can do it. Now we just need the discipline, the marketing expertise and skills to bring that to a much wider consumer base. Some people might like the moves, some people might like the story of the drama, their muscles or looks, or persona. I always say if there’s a 100 people, there’s a 100 different ways to fall in love with pro-wrestling.»

All — Kyodo News+

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