Jatai International, a supplier of finely crafted razors, shears and shaving accessories, has evolved tremendously since its inception 67 ￼￼years ago—and thanks to the revival of the old-school barbershop, has seen a recent spike in sales. Spearheaded by CEO and president Dean Wada, the business is now also a family-owned and operated one. Let’s take a look at the company’s rich history, greatest victories, growth strategies and big plans for the future.
BRIDGING THE GAP
In 1950, Jatai International was founded by Fred Wada, a man with whom Dean coincidently shares the same last name, but no direct relation. Jatai (an acronym for Japan America Trading Agency, Inc.) originated as a liaison office in California to promote postwar trade between the U.S. and Japan.
“Fred Wada was a man who was really interested in establishing Japan in the world market. After World War II, Japan was devastated, and he felt that the only way to get Japan back on its feet was to create commerce,” Dean says.
A produce wholesaler who distributed to grocery stores throughout Southern California, Fred faced many challenges in getting Jatai up and running. “There was prejudice against the Japanese after World War II, and that was a major obstacle for him,” Dean says. Despite such hurdles, Fred formed a network of business professionals—CPAs, lawyers and bankers—well versed in the various regulations required for foreign corporations to do business in the States.
“My advice to entrepreneurs is to stay focused, stay true to your convictions and be patient—nothing happens overnight.”
Interestingly, Fred also made tireless efforts while serving on the Tokyo Olympic Committee, which helped Japan get the nomination for the 1964 Summer Olympics. Dean says, “This was really important because in ’64, it opened Japan to the rest of the world. The first bullet train was introduced at the Olympics, and this was the start of Japan coming out of World War II devastation.”
As the company grew, Fred invited a commodity trader in New York, who specialized in foreign trade, to join him on the West Coast. That man was Kay Obayashi, who would become Jatai’s next owner in the late 1970s. At first, Jatai specialized in sewing machines, and later switched focus to what Obayashi knew best: importing and exporting. From tatami mats to diatomaceous soil to scrap pieces of tuna for canned cat food, the company didn’t find its niche until Obayashi started importing haircutting razors and blades.
In the 1960s, under Obayashi, Jatai began distributing Feather Safety Razor Co. products, starting with the Feather Switch-Blade Shears with Replaceable Blades—an item that did well for many years as one of the priciest, high-quality shears on the market (and is still sold by the company today).
“[Obayashi] started to find products he could have full or exclusive distribution rights to,” Dean says. “Today, that’s what we’re enjoying right now. We have been the sole distributor of Feather professional beauty products as well as a couple other product lines.” Jatai has also created its own line of men’s grooming products, which includes shaving cream, facial cleanser and moisturizer.
Feather products are made in Seki, Japan—the birthplace of the samurai sword and a region known for its cutlery, knives and grooming tools made using the land’s plentiful natural resources, like pine charcoal for kilns. “Jatai razors are truly remarkable. Their quality is what sets them apart,” says Dean’s daughter Vanessa, who oversees marketing and product development. “Feather, our razor manufacturer, sets the bar on razor production. ... They are very precise with their production techniques and quality control testing.”
In 1991, Jatai and Feather developed the Feather Styling Razor, which is Jatai’s hero product and the No. 1 haircutting razor in the world. “The Feather Styling Razor is the first replaceable-blade razor with guarded blades to appear in the market,” Vanessa says. Prior to its invention, razors folded and had a guard slip on the head of the razor, which allowed hair to get clogged between the guard and blade. This posed a danger to stylists who could easily cut themselves. Unlike its predecessors, the Feather Styling Razor has a guard built right onto it, with a blade that extends into the handle for a more secure grip.
“The other thing about our razor is that it doesn’t fold. It’s a straight-handle razor, which was unheard of back when we brought it out. The reason we did that was to give the hairdresser a real easy tool to use, which you don’t have to learn how to hold. It’s just like grabbing a pencil or paint- brush—and you start cutting,” Dean says.
THE BARBERSHOP BOOM
Dean was working as a CPA for one of the Big 8 firms in the 1980s (“Way back when we had floppy disks,” he laughs), and Jatai was one of his clients. Though Obayashi’s nephew was poised to take over the business, he tragically died in a plane crash; Obayashi invited Dean to join the company in 1987. “I always wanted to get involved with a small company to help develop it and be more entrepreneurial,” Dean says. Seventeen years later, Dean purchased Jatai, moving its headquarters from Santa Fe Springs to Buena Park, California.
Dean says that his most memorable accomplishments over the years include conceptualizing the Feather Styling Razor, bringing Seki Edge tools to the U.S. and witnessing Seki Edge nail clippers become the No. 1 nail clipper sold on Amazon.
“Today, when people think of the Feather Styling Razor, they think of Jatai—and that’s a great feeling.”
“Because of the internet, people who shave at home can get access to less expensive products, and great products as well. So due to that, a lot of entrepreneurs have come out and developed shaving products and men’s haircare products, which opened the doors for the barber industry to really flourish and continue to evolve. Before this all started, we sold very few blades. Yet since the barber industry changed, we now sell thousands per month,” Dean says.
But the recent growth in the barber industry also meant increased competition. “It’s definitely changing the business model we have been comfortable with for decades. Finding new products and getting them distributed properly [is a challenge] given the distribution channels we have today, which are very narrow and difficult to get a new product into,” Dean says.
He has increased efforts to get Jatai products into more retail stores by reducing retail prices earlier in the year; Dean is also working on additional solutions to help stores boost sales of Seki Edge products in particular. To compete with online prices, he says he needs to even out the playing field, and is confident Jatai will increase in brick-and-mortar store sales in the near future.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Jatai’s success may equally be due to its supportive culture. Dean says that he treats the 10 employees that make up Jatai’s staff like family, nurturing everyone’s talents as best he can. “The culture is a community working together to find the best products that meet our customers’ demands, and great service. If I hire good, solid employees, they will bring our Jatai culture to life and give that feeling of ‘family’ to our customers and our suppliers,” he says.
Three of his employees also happen to be family: His wife Gloria, vice president, manages payables; his son Kevin, who joined seven years ago, handles operations; and his daughter Vanessa, who came on board six years ago in a marketing capacity.
Vanessa previously worked as a registered dietician, with the hopes of creating an online business promoting her nutritional services; one day she realized that she could be an asset in increasing Jatai’s marketing efforts. “Maybe it was just because I’m his daughter, but I’d like to believe he thought I could make a positive difference at Jatai,” Vanessa says.
Over the years, her role has evolved to encompass website management, video production, photography and product development, among other things. Vanessa finds inspiration for new products by studying market trends, reading customer reviews and applying what other industries are doing to the beauty industry. “I take a new product, create a brand look and feel, and then determine ways to bring it to market. I wear a lot of hats, but I like it this way because it means I’m constantly learning and being challenged,” she says.
Vanessa admits that working with family has its pros and cons, saying, “It’s family, so it’s easier for me to express what I feel without feeling like I will be fired. I have a greater ability to try to carry out my initiatives and ideas. I can turn on my daughter charm and sometimes get my way! But I still feel like an employee. ... If any of us get into a bad argument it could easily be carried into family life outside of work if we let it.”
“We are always on the lookout for new products to bring to market.”
Kevin adds, “Working with family is not too different from working for someone else. When I’m at work I don’t interact differently with my family versus our other employees. One difference is company expenses feel more personal, as if I’m spending my own money.”
Kevin, a CPA prior to joining Jatai, didn’t have a clearly defined role when he started, but now manages the computer systems, accounting, human resources, purchasing orders, attends trade shows and more. He says, “A lot of days I’m not sure what will come up, and it keeps things interesting.”
Dean feels it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hire quality employees—something that’s on his mind right now because he’s planning to reorganize the company in 2018, getting Kevin and Vanessa more involved with upper management and daily operations while he takes a backseat. With family businesses being a rarity these days, Dean says, “I really feel a family operation allows the legacy to continue, giving the next generation a running start and the opportunity to spread their wings.”
In addition to expanding the distribution of new products released this year (Jatai Heat Shields, Jatai Teasing Pin Comb and Feather Standard Blades R-Type), 2018’s emphasis will be on adapting to an ever-changing market. “A greater focus on selling direct will come into play, which means we will more heavily draw our attention to building online sales,” Vanessa says.
Kevin agrees, saying, “E-commerce is playing a larger and larger role in distribution. It offers a great opportunity, but it creates challenges for brick-and-mortar distribution. Navigating between those two distribution channels will be very important for our future.”
Dean says the company wouldn’t be what it is today without the ongoing encouragement of his wife Gloria. “Without her understanding and support, it would have been difficult for me to advance the company. We have four children, so she was constantly taking care of them while I was on the road selling or staying late at the office, doing what I had to do. She is a big part of why we’re here today.”
Optimistic about the future of the company, Dean says, “If you’re passionate about what you believe in, those bumps in the road are just bumps, and you’ll continue and succeed. It may not be in dollars, it may not be in the fashion you thought, but you know you’ll succeed as far as you can go.”