Insurance salesmen generally shun risk, not seek it--unless you're Yoshiki Otake, chairman of AFLAC Japan. A quarter-century ago, Otake ditched a stable, successful career selling insurance to set up his own franchise--selling Japan's first cancer insurance for the Columbus (Ga.) American Family Life Assurance Co. The product was an instant hit; AFLAC Japan now accounts for three-quarters of group profits worldwide, and ranks behind IBM Japan and Coca-Cola Co. as the most profitable foreign company in Japan.

Otake, 61, broke with tradition by pitching insurance straight to companies, who then offered it to their employees, eliminating the huge sales forces that weighed down other insurers. Otake, who spent two years studying in California and became a Christian there, says the importance of providing cancer coverage motivates his employees. Cancer is the No. 1 cause of death in Japan, with twice the death rate of heart disease at No. 2. "The agents really felt like they were selling something worthwhile," he says, "kind of like missionary work."

Otake's new products, including coverage for dementia and home care for the elderly, are driving up profits--29% in 1999 to $651 million. But Otake is wary of becoming complacent. His next goal is to put his business online. "The biggest danger for a successful company is for people to get egos," says Otake, a humble man in his own right.

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