Ikea Japan CEO Von Reis: Japan Should ‘Let Loose The Female Talent’

Face-To-Face With The Woman Who Is Taking Ikea's Business Further Higher

Set to open their 10th store, Ikea Japan, under the leadership of CEO Helene Von Reis, is showing that business success and equality go hand in hand. Savvy Tokyo sat down with the CEO in her “favorite meeting room” accented with a bright green velvet couch to discuss her vision and how gender equality in the workplace is possible.

Helene von Reis is a rare find in Japan. As CEO of Ikea Japan since 2016, she is building upon tenets that helped Ikea — the Swedish furniture retailer that has more than 300 stores in 41 countries — find success.

At Ikea Japan, managers are at 50 percent men and 50 percent women. Workers receive equal pay for equal work, even though Japan as a whole is not up to this standard. On-site daycare for employees is a goal for all stores and is already a feature at the Ikea Japan headquarters and store in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture.

Ikea Japan CEO Helene von Reis at the company’s headquarters in Funabashi, Chiba. Photo: Victoria Vlisides

It’s difficult to find a CEO in Japan that runs a company with one of the above attributes, let alone, all three. Indeed, von Reis herself is exceptionally atypical in this country. As a woman and a CEO, she is part of the only 3.7 percent of female executives in a listed company in Japan, according to government data cited in a Nikkei Asia Review article in February. More recently, Miwa Kato, United Nations Women Asia Pacific Regional Director, cited the statistic in a speech at Sophia University last month as evidence for the long road to workplace gender equality.

Yet, von Reis is grateful that her and Ikea’s views on diversity and inclusion are one and the same.

“For me, as a woman, with the role that I have and the voice that I have, I think that I have to make a purpose out of that,” she told Savvy.  “And that purpose is higher, for us at Ikea, than selling furniture.”

Yes, equality is possible

Ikea Japan CEO Helene von Reis at the company headquarters’ entrance in Funabashi, Chiba. Photo: Victoria Vlisides

Von Reis maintains a frank attitude that, yes, gender equality at work is possible, but it starts from the top down.

“I find it interesting to listen to other companies that say, ‘Oh, no, it’s impossible,’” she says.

For example, she emphasizes that it’s up to the employer to set the goal and follow up to be able to hire 50-50 male and female managers.

…Gender equality at work is possible, but it starts from the top down.

“It’s our job to support [and] to kind of get the circles widened and get the candidates,” she says, adding that diversity not only makes better business but also makes it easier.

In recent years, Ikea Japan has won several awards related to workplace culture in Japan. It was recognized in 2016 and 2017 by the Forbes Japan Women Awards and was recognized as one of the Top 10 Great Places to Work in Japan for 2018 for companies with 1,000 employees or more by the Great Places to Work Institute.

Helene Von Reis, left, accepts a “Corporate Award” at the 2017 Forbes Japan Women Awards, along with recipients Meyumi Yamada, center, and Naomi Ehara. Photo by: Victoria Vlisides.

Ikea may be leading by example for women in Japan, yet von Reis echoes the opinion that the general climate for workplace equality is not improving fast enough here.

“For me, it’s unbelievable how you can struggle as a country knowing that you sit on this asset,” she said. “…With such an aging population, it’s not going to work if we don’t let loose the female talent in Japan.”

Much is done, but the challenges remain 

A model room at Ikea Japan’s Tokyo Bay store. Photo by: Victoria Vlisides.

Apart from supporting gender equality in the workplace, it is fair to say that Ikea has improved a lot under von Reis’ leadership. The company finally launched its online shopping site just about a year ago — a move that, in 21st Century consumerism, was naturally long anticipated. Von Reis, who is nearly a 20-year veteran of the brand, said that Ikea must strike a balance in attracting online shoppers and still sparking consumer motivation to visit physical stores.

At Ikea Japan, managers are at 50 percent men and 50 percent women. Workers receive equal pay for equal work.

Ikea has nine locations in Japan, with a new store set to open outside Nagoya in October. Despite pushing the online shop, von Reis said the driving force to bring people out to the stores is the experience.

“In our case, food is super important, and we know that many customers come to us to eat because we have good Swedish food and Japanese know Swedish food,” she said. “So, we know food is a true driver.”

Soul food: Von Reis says many customers go to Ikea for its famous Swedish food. Photo by: Victoria Vlisides.

For example, in-store factors at Tokyo Bay Ikea, besides the shopping itself, include a bistro and foods shop, full-service cafeteria, free Wifi and an in-store children’s play area where parents can let their kids play under supervision.

Yet, even with awards under their belt, Ikea Japan still has plenty of challenges on the horizon.

One of the company’s challenges, von Reis admitted, are ongoing issues with Japanese moving companies and Ikea furniture. Some companies won’t move it, perhaps because moving companies are worried about the size or the durability of items. She characterized this issue as “odd” and “scary,” but at this stage didn’t cite a clear solution for it. We’d like to think, however, that it’s on Ikea’s radar. Still, von Reis said customer survey reviews are higher than they have ever been. She said her friendly and competent staff are a big factor in that.

While work keeps her busy, so does family. With Ikea, she has lived in the U.S., China and now Tokyo, but she said moving around has allowed her family to have a team mindset. That includes her husband, son, 12, daughter, 17, and poodle. In her free time, she enjoys cooking and using her favorite (and delightfully versatile) glass from Ikea from the “IKEA 365plus” series.

Read the full interview with von Reis here.

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