No sitting still
Text by Andrew Howitt / Photo by Kageaki Smith
“I need to accomplish new things all the time, so my life is a continuous trial and error,” says Karl Hahne, president and representative director of Häfele Japan. “I cannot sit still. I need to find new stuff [to do]. And I always believe that my greatest accomplishment is yet to come.”
Hahne describes himself as impatient and calls this one of his greatest strengths. It is this impatience that has fuelled his ambition and is the drive that helps him continue to succeed in business.
He speaks about one of his past accomplishments with evident pride. “I started bringing professional theatre into Japan from 1993,” says Hahne. “I realised quickly, never ever was I going to be making money with professional theatre, but I liked the idea. It was there and it looked good, so I picked it up.”
The translation firm, ONEWORLD, which Hahne founded and where he was CEO at the time, sponsored The International Theatre Company London (stageplay.jp) and their performances in Japan. They continue to come once a year to perform Shakespeare plays at universities and public venues across Japan. They will be bringing Shakespeare’s The Tempest to Tokyo in May.
“It was a great way to give back to the community,” Hahne explains. “I was able to invite anybody I knew to the theatre, my whole customer database … and it goes to universities all over the country. The list of universities that have received this is so long, and it’s gotten us so much respect.”
Although Hahne has since passed the reins of sponsoring the theatre to a friend, he made sure that it was in good hands. “The fact that it’s still alive means that it’s still giving back,” he says.
Hahne is originally from a town near Düsseldorf called Wuppertal, the hometown of Friedrich Engels and the pharmaceutical company, Bayer. He came to Japan in 1989 and worked as an English teacher; but he also tried his hand at several other jobs, including freelance translator, model, actor, narrator, and driver for car commercials.
Impatience with English teaching finally got the better of him; and in 1992 he started ONEWORLD, a translation company that later turned into a publishing house, and subsequently diversified from print to online advertising and e-learning.
Since 2008, Hahne has been the president of Häfele Japan. “Our clients are anybody who’s making furniture or kitchens in this country,” explains Hahne. “We’re still a small player. We’re high-end. We’re niche. And our range is highly specific towards this market.”
Häfele’s claim to fame is having invented connectors used in assembling furniture. “We’re still making those, and we’re still selling them in the millions every month in Japan,” states Hahne.
Of about 800 accounts, 40% of those are dealers, he says, giving Häfele a reach of roughly 85% of the Japanese wood-processing market. Although one would think 85% is an impressive figure, Hahne says: “Well, no, because there’s still 15%.”
One constant throughout Hahne’s life is playing sports and staying active — another way he proves that he cannot sit still. It helps him to “balance [his] stressful work life”, he says. He regularly plays tennis, soccer and golf, and is a member of the exclusive Tokyo Lawn Tennis Club, a place the emperor visits once or twice a year, as well as the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club where he has served on the board.
“The lessons in sports for life are awesome,” he notes. “You learn how to deal with pressure. Taking a penalty kick — there’s a lot of pressure when you do that. And team play you learn in sports.”
“Plus,” he adds, smiling, “there’s the aspect of overall relaxation — I can get rid of all my aggressions that accumulate throughout the day by hitting a tennis ball or kicking a soccer ball.”