Yasuyuki Nambu's time has come. The founder and CEO of the Pasona Group, Japan's largest outplacement agency, has spent the last 25 years finding workers part-time jobs in a country where lifetime service is revered. But after years of dismissing temps as a necessary evil, Japanese managers now know they need them to survive. The 10-year economic funk has finally forced companies to cut costs by hiring more part-timers and outsourcing work. And that's playing right into Nambu's hands.
Not that he needs much help. The privately held Pasona Group is a giant, with 336,000 registered temps, 50,000 client companies, and an estimated $1.5 billion in sales last year. It does not disclose profits. In an industry that boasts more than 2,600 companies, Pasona continues to grow more than 20% a year and is larger than its three largest competitors combined. Pasona has offices in 64 cities across Japan as well as in the U.S. and China. Pasona's success has helped Nambu amass a personal fortune estimated at $1.7 billion.
But Nambu is more than a beneficiary of Japan's sinking economy. In fact, Nambu, 49, practically invented temping in Japan. He set up the company when he was 24, a daring mission in an economy long dominated by conglomerates. But Nambu, who worked as a security guard, a cleaner, and a schoolteacher in his youth, couldn't find full-time work during the recession following the Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s. He was also struck by how many housewives could not find jobs.
So Nambu borrowed $30,000, persuaded a landlord to let him use an office for free, and got his wife and best friend to help him launch his staffing service. "It was tough," says Nambu, who was born in Kobe, home to many famous entrepreneurs. "There are plenty of ventures now, but back then it was all about being part of a zaibatsu."
Nambu has thrived in areas that Japan Inc. ignored--and has often persuaded the government to go along. When Nambu promised to bring thousands of Indian software engineers to Japan, the government within weeks announced a special program to give them visas.
Pasona has become the first company in Japan to introduce an American-style 401(k) pension plan even though lawmakers are still mulling the necessary legislation. "Japan's labor system is 50 years out of date," Nambu says. He's doing his best to change that.