For many people relocating to Japan, it can be a hassle finding a place to live, getting settled in, arranging for furniture, a car, and so on, not to mention visa procedures. H&R Group, which was established in Nagoya 20 years ago, takes all those worries away.
H&R Group has now been in Tokyo 13 years, and has just opened operations in Kobe. It provides comprehensive support in Japan for international assignees, their families, and their employers, as well as a wide range of ongoing services and support. H&R Group has six divisions – Relo Japan (offering personalized and cost-effective relocation services), Japan Home Search (English real estate and apartment listings), Lease Japan (provides leasing and sales of new and used cars, as well as household appliances and furniture), Japan Driver’s License (assistance in converting foreign driver’s license to a Japanese driver’s license), Japan Residence (Nagoya serviced apartments) and Japan Info Swap (an online information resource for the foreign community).
Overseeing operations is Steve Burson, president of H&R Group. Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, Burson has been in Japan for 17 years. He first came to Japan on the JET program and worked for several years near Nagoya. After that, he worked as a translator for a year in Tokyo, and then spent a few years at an international moving company before joining H&R. Based at the company’s head office in Nagoya, Burson travels to Tokyo frequently.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros catches up with Burson during a visit to Tokyo.
Why is the company based in Nagoya?
The original owners of the company were based in Nagoya and the business basically started as a way to help Lockheed Martin. At that time, they were bringing a lot of expat employees to Nagoya and there was no company to help them with housing or relocation services.
What are your main services?
Relo Japan is the entry point to our organization. It is the coordination center of all we do – finding housing, car and furniture leasing, helping clients to get Japanese driver’s licenses, documentation for getting visas, and so on.
How do you arrange housing for clients?
We are a tenant side agent. We represent the tenant’s best interests, not the owners. We therefore work with a range of different agents, and provide the best options to our clients from multiple sources. When a big multinational company transfers employees around the world, they generally outsource the moving of those people to a large relocation company. We contract with those companies, so when they come to Japan, we become the Japan provider of all the services I have mentioned.
Some companies in Japan contact us directly. In those cases, their office has full authority to make decisions by themselves. We actually work best in this environment, as communicating with our clients 100% locally removes much of the inefficiency that exists with global contracts and policies. I recommend it.
After you get a contract, what happens next?
We receive the details of who is coming, their budget and requirements. Typically, a month or so before they come to Japan, we are in touch with them via email and phone, providing them with property options and answering any questions they might have. Then they come to Japan and look at properties. After that, they might go back to their home countries to get ready. When they relocate to Japan, we help them move in. The idea is to provide one point of coordination and take all the worries of moving away so they can focus on their work. However, our work doesn’t end there. We’re big on providing service right throughout a person’s assignment.
You must get a lot of detailed and even impossible requests.
There are always tradeoffs. People moving to Japan have a good idea of what they want and where they want to live but it doesn’t always work out. Some have unbelievably detailed requests such as the color of the wallpaper and the carpet, but that is all part of what we do. We ask them to prioritize the requirements on their list and try to negotiate as many as we can through our contacts and experience.
How do you market your services?
Word of mouth is the best way to grow the business. If you offer a quality service, that drives repeat business. We are big on giving quality, especially in the coordination center of Relo Japan. We used to do a lot of advertising in various journals, but this year we decided to try more online ads. We’re also on CNN right now. We are boosting our efforts on social media like Facebook and Twitter as well.
How did last year’s disaster affect business?
In the first few days, clients wanted a lot of information on different things. They weren’t sure what to do and we had a busy time answering their questions. I was trying to get the message across that it wasn’t the end of the world. I was blogging every day, as the Japanese government was underplaying the seriousness of the situation, while some foreign TV media were overplaying it. I tried hard to portray the reality on the ground.
After Golden Week, people started coming back. We had a really busy summer because a lot of people returned to their home countries and many of them had to be replaced. So we were very busy with our inbound services. In fact, it was a busier summer than in 2010.
What about late 2011 and so far this year?
Because there was so much activity in the middle of last year, there was very little activity in December-January which is normally a busy time for us. Now we are getting into the busy season again. I have noticed that there are more younger people or people with Japanese spouses looking to get back to Japan.
Are you getting many inquiries about the new residence registration cards and visa procedures?
Yes, we are and helping clients with visas is one of the first things we do. I am the HR committee chair of the European Business Council and we have had had immigration bureau officials come in and explain it to us because we need to know what’s going on in order to service our clients.
Tell us about your team.
We have 35 people in three offices—about 15 here in Tokyo, one in Kobe and the rest in our Nagoya head office. About a third are foreigners and all staff are bilingual.
Why did you open an office in Kobe?
I felt there was no good quality service provider there and Kobe deserves one. There is not a lot of relocation activity now, so it is a good opportunity to create relationships, so that we will be well positioned when the time is right.
What do you focus your energies on?
About 30-40% of my time goes to sales. It’s also important for me to maintain relationships with relocation companies and go to conferences to see industry trends. I do quite a bit of international travel to visit clients. I come to Tokyo once a week. This year, I am spending a little bit more time here, maybe two or three days a week.
Do you work on weekends?
I find Saturday is the easiest day to catch up on email. Sundays are for my family.
Outside work, what are you involved in?
I am very active in the Nagoya international community. I’m a board member of the Nagoya International School, and I’m a member of Chubu Branch of the American Chamber of Commerce In Japan ACCJ), the Australia New Zealand Chamber of Commerce Japan (ANZCCJ), and the European Business Council (EBC).
For more information on H&R Group, visit http://www.morethanrelo.com/English/index.asp. For any questions on the the new resident card, email Burson at firstname.lastname@example.org (no charge).