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Years ago when Yutaka Nagao was the head of a regional office at Yamato Transport, Japan’s top parcel-delivery company, he took a call that gave him a new appreciation for the reach of logistics. The distraught person on the line, in a distant northern city, hadn’t been able to contact a family member living near Nagao’s office. Could he help?

“It wasn’t something we did but she sounded worried so I said our driver would swing by and leave a message in the person’s mailbox,” says the 51-year-old. “It was nice to know that people felt they could rely on us. At the time, though, I couldn’t believe she had called us.”

The thought of a delivery company stepping into a public-service role no longer seems so far-fetched. Since taking over as president of Yamato Transport in 2015, Nagao has put the company’s domestic network of 60,000 drivers and 4,000 offices to use helping cities and towns around the country cope with problems they don’t have the resources to tackle. Drivers now deliver groceries to homes in remote areas with no nearby supermarket, check on elderly residents and are even prepared to mobilise aid shipments when disasters occur.

Social responsibility is one reason for the initiative but it’s also about exploring new business opportunities in a country that is packed with retirees. “We don’t think of it as volunteer work,” says Nagao. “We rely on these communities so we feel it’s important to understand the problems they face.”

This is new territory for Yamato Transport, which is owned by Yamato Holdings, a Tokyo-based firm founded in 1919 as a chartered lorry service. Yamato Transport accounts for more than 80 per cent of the group’s ¥1.4trn (€11.4bn) in annual revenue and its Takkyubin service is Japan’s biggest name in parcel delivery. Nearly half of the 3.6 billion packages that were transported domestically last year travelled by Takkyubin lorries, vans, pushcarts and bicycles.

Launched in 1976, Takkyubin is an all-round service that will carry your golf clubs to the links, heavy suitcases home from the airport, skis to resorts and chilled pork-belly slices from producers – on time and in pristine condition, no matter how remote the locations. Yamato’s black cat logo and couriers in their tan-and-green uniforms are so ubiquitous that takkyubin has become a generic term for sending packages.

It’s the eve of Japan’s hectic oseibo gift-giving season when Nagao meets monocle at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo’s Higashi-Ginza district. A Yamato career man who joined out of university in 1988, Nagao is a straight-talker with a penchant for storytelling. He is leading the company through a period of uncertainty. Online shopping is surging, as is demand for same-day deliveries. Meanwhile, more Japanese companies, from manufacturers to farmers, are extending their reach in overseas markets. These days Yamato handles more packages than ever – up 50 per cent in the past decade – but getting everything where it’s supposed to go has become trickier. “Often people aren’t at home to receive packages,” says Nagao. One in five has to be redelivered. “Lifestyles are changing. We haven’t figured out a system that’s a good fit for e-commerce.”

It won’t be for want of trying. Last year Nagao negotiated a tie-up with France’s Neopost to install thousands of lockers, mainly at railway stations across Japan. In the future consumers will be able to pick up packages wherever it’s convenient rather than having to receive them at home. In March Yamato is teaming up with hi-tech firm DeNA for trials of self-driving vehicles that might one day be sophisticated – and safe – enough to respond to online shopping orders and navigate complex pick-ups and drop-offs.

Nagao was 27 when he got his first assignment as head of a small sales office in Kobe, western Japan. That’s where he first had to deal with disruptions: when a magnitude 7.3 earthquake toppled highways and buildings and cracked roads in Kobe, Nagao had to work around the clock to restore service long before the city’s infrastructure could be repaired. A decade later a typhoon-triggered landslide severed the main expressway in Yamaguchi and Nagao, who was in charge of the region, organised a massive rerouting of deliveries. By the time a magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami hit Japan’s northeastern seaboard in 2011 Nagao, who was then looking after Tokyo and seven other prefectures, knew what to do. “Because I’d been through the Kobe quake I could anticipate what would come next and prepare the team,” he says. “We were up and running as quickly as possible – even if it was limited.”

The experience reinforced the importance of communicating directly with staff on the frontline. Nagao does this regularly, dropping in on the company’s offices around the country and meeting customers to get feedback. “I prefer to see and hear things for myself,” he says. Nagao’s goal is to win more cachet for his industry. Yamato’s promotional material reveals the difficulty of this: the company aspires to offer services that are as essential to daily life as air – invisible but always there. Yet most people take breathing for granted. “We feel a sense of urgency,” he says. “There are many new technologies we can incorporate. We must continue adapting to change.”

The rules

01 What time do you like to be at your desk?
07.00. I make a cup of coffee and then I read the newspapers on my iPad and check my emails.

02 What is the best way to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or on the job?
On the job.

03 What’s your management style?
Lead by example. I rely on my own fact-finding, not reports. I’m a believer in face-to-face meetings.

04 Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
The board of directors makes key decisions for the company. As part of the process I speak with other directors and build a consensus.

05 Do you want to be liked or respected?
I don’t crave respect – I’d rather be liked than disliked. But I also don’t make decisions to win people over.

06 What does your support team look like?
The chairman and the four managing directors of my executive team. We meet often and are a good team. I meet once a month with the 10 heads of our regional offices.

07 What technology do you carry on a trip?
Mobile phone and iPad. And a laptop, if necessary.

08 Do you read management books?
I buy a lot of business books but don’t read them cover to cover, only what interests me.

09 Run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
I try to socialise with the staff but I rarely have time.

10 What would your key management advice be?
I encourage the staff to be curious and to think about why certain products and services work well.

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