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[TOKYO] Anyone wondering why Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is crusading to get more women running Japan's male- dominated corporations should meet Miwako Date, daughter of Japanese billionaire property developer Akira Mori.
Four years after Ms Date became president of Mori Trust Hotels & Resorts Co, a unit of Mori Trust Co, the company is forecasting hotel revenue to grow 26 per cent in the latest fiscal year.
That compares with an average 5.4 per cent gain at the five largest hotel operators in the same period, the year ended March 31, according to an estimate by Mizuho Bank Ltd.
So Mr Mori has picked Ms Date, 43, to take over his Mori Trust Co, the closely held development firm with 149.7 billion yen (S$1.7 billion) in revenue, 94 office buildings and about 30 hotels - including the Conrad Tokyo, the year-old Courtyard by Marriott Tokyo Station and the Suiran, a Japanese-style luxury hotel in Kyoto, which opened last month in collaboration with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc.
"She is very ambitious, and she is very capable," the 78-year-old Mr Mori, the current chief executive officer, said in an interview in which he credited his daughter with the success of the company's hotel business and confirmed she'll take his place in "the near future," without giving a date.
As Mr Abe seeks to increase female managers to 30 per cent Japan-wide by 2020, Ms Date is an unusual leader in a sector dominated by men. Although women account for about 40 per cent of the real-estate workforce, according to the Statistics Bureau of Japan, only 1.6 per cent of the industry's managers are female, a report by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare said. It's 4.9 per cent on average in Japan's private sector, government data show.
"Japan's largest companies must produce more top female leaders going forward," said Yasuhiro Matsumoto, a Tokyo-based senior manager at ABeam Consulting Ltd. A woman at the helm of Mori Trust "will be a role model." Japan can't truly thrive unless all citizens reach their fullest potential, the prime minister wrote in a Bloomberg commentary published late Friday.
"The question is no longer whether to pursue the advancement of women but what positions and roles they should take on, and how soon," Mr Abe wrote.
Ms Date is the granddaughter of the late property tycoon Taikichiro Mori, who six decades ago founded Mori Fudosan. After his 1993 death, sons Minoru and Akira split the company in two - Mori Building Co and Mori Trust, now Japan's biggest closely held developers. Mori Building, which spent years planning and completing the Roppongi Hills complex in central Tokyo, focuses on multibillion-dollar complexes. Mori Trust sticks to single or twin structures.
Ms Date credits her father and grandfather with fostering her ambitions and goals. When she was young, they frequently peppered her with questions, prompting her to think in-depth and "consider the best ways to respond and explain," she said in an interview in January.
Ms Date attended Sacred Heart private girls school in Tokyo, where Empress Michiko was educated. She received a master's degree in media and governance from Tokyo's Keio University, and joined Mori Trust in 1998 after a stint at a Japanese consulting firm that helped her establish a track record, Ms Date said.
After she entered the family business in her 20s, her father "would present challenges for me and ask me to come up with suggestions and solutions," said Ms Date. The experience informs her managerial style with employees today, she said.
"Instead of giving them a methodology, I tend to also give my people opportunities to resolve issues on their own," she said.
While her career rise may be due to family position, there's no question about her ability, said Hiro Kosugi, director of Japan sales, marketing and operations at Marriott International Inc., who worked with Ms Date to develop the Courtyard, which Mori Trust operates under franchise.
"She would have been successful no matter what," said Mr Kosugi. "She has that talent, inner strength and vision." The Tokyo Station property is different from Marriott's other beige-oriented Courtyards around the world: It features colorful guest quarters with names such as creator's room, editor's room, photographer's room and curator's room.
"She talks a lot about innovations, and Courtyard Tokyo is one of the examples," said Mr Kosugi. "Instead of running a regular business hotel, she wants to bring in new types of designs and concepts."
The editor's room, which costs as much as 40,000 yen a night, contrasts dark-gray walls with a white bed. A black lamp with a pattern of a white moon and mountain is meant to evoke Zen design. Purple coffee cups match a purple carpet.
"It's not a Marriott way, but Ms Date's way, incorporating her sense of design," Mr Kosugi said.
The hotel is booked with 88 per cent occupancy in April, higher than the 70 per cent Mori Trust forecast.
"She is very talented in visual presentation and she is good with overseeing numbers," said Mr Kosugi. "She is somebody who really pays attention to details. Because of that, it's keeping a lot of her managers on their toes."
Japan's hotel industry had been dominated by domestic brands through the early 1990s, until the opening of a Four Seasons Hotel, the Park Hyatt Tokyo and the Westin Tokyo. After Japan's asset bubble burst, it took a decade for another round of foreign hotels to come in, and Mori Trust became one of the first to aid their return.
In 2002, two years before Ms Date was made managing director in charge of Mori Trust's property development, she helped persuade the company's partner in building a new office tower to invite Hilton Worldwide Holding Inc's Conrad Hotels & Resorts to come and manage its first Tokyo property, which opened in 2005, according to information provided by Mori Trust.
Since Ms Date took on the development role, Mori Trust has added 2,000 hotel rooms to its portfolio, 1,200 of them internationally branded. She has plans for more projects ahead of Tokyo's hosting of the Olympics in 2020, including building more international-brand hotels and renovating some properties, she said.
Already Mori Trust is benefiting from a surge in tourism: Visitors to Japan in March totaled a record high 1.53 million, 45 per cent more than the year-earlier period, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.
Ms Date speaks passionately and frankly at public events about Mori Trust's strategy, standing out in a field of men with more-guarded stances, said Tomohiko Sawayanagi, managing director of hotels and hospitality at Jones Lang LaSalle Inc, who moderated a panel where Ms Date spoke last year.
Ms Date's willingness to franchise, such as with Marriott, and develop small hotels like the 39-room luxury ryokan with Starwood in Kyoto, "demonstrate her ability and authority to run international hotels" while being flexible about how to do it.
"That's good for the hotel industry," he said. "We don't see another person who appears as a leader." In addition to hotels, Ms Date has also developed office and commercial projects and is currently working on a new 36-story building at Toranomon 4-chome, including offices, a hotel, serviced apartments and shops, to be completed by 2019.
Ms Date cites her role in a previous development, of the Marunouchi Trust Tower near Tokyo Station, as one of her best achievements.
To encourage private-sector redevelopment, the government in 2002 introduced tax breaks and so-called bonus floors that enabled developers to build taller buildings. Ms Date negotiated with the local Chiyoda ward and the Tokyo government, asserting that hotels should be included in the incentive program.
"The value of a city changes once you have luxury hotels," she said.
After two years of discussions, the government agreed, and the building became the first case of a hotel being included in a tax-break construction, according to information provided by Mori Trust and the Chiyoda ward. As a result, Mori Trust boosted the floor-area ratio of the building to 1,300 per cent from 900 per cent of the site and constructed a taller building that included a Shangri-La Hotel on the 27th to 37th floors.
"Even with new ideas, if you can't make it happen, it doesn't mean anything," Ms Date said.