A few hours after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Joseph Webber’s phone started ringing. It has hardly stopped since. As managing director of Santa Fe Relocations Japan, Webber has found himself and his team inundated with calls from clients wanting to move out of Japan or just relocate to another city in Japan.
Unlike other relocation companies, Santa Fe offers a greater range of services, including tenancy management, as well as helping clients get visas and re-entry permits.
All those services have been in demand.
Many clients who panicked and fled Tokyo with little or no notice have even asked Santa Fe to make sure their personal effects are checked for radiation before having them shipped home.
Hailing from Hawaii, Webber has been in the moving business since 1976 when he started out sweeping up the nails from a warehouse floor so the trucks wouldn’t get flat tires. During his career, he has worked in China, Thailand and the Philippines and has spent the last six years in Japan.
GaijinPot, together with the editor of our-sister site Japan Today, visits Webber at the Santa Fe offices in Roppongi to hear more.
My phone started ringing on the Friday night of the quake. I had people in the U.S. and Europe calling to know what was happening with their shipments to and from Yokohama. Then the following week, the exodus began. It got to the point where I had to start turning business away. We haven’t seen the entire household leaving at this point, but we’ve seen a dramatic rise in emergency relocation services. Santa Fe is not just a moving company. We can handle visa and immigration, tenancy management, whereas most of my competition in the moving side doesn’t do that. So we have had requests from clients to get them re-entry permits, or to get them and their family out of here to Osaka and book them domestic transport and hotel accommodations.
Some didn’t even inform us in advance that they were leaving. They called and informed us that they were not even coming back for the packing. They’d say: “Go into my house and send me these things that I need because I am back in Europe or the States.” We’ve been asked to clean out refrigerators, throw out trash, forward their mail and so on. In other cases, the HR department of the company they worked for contacts us. The physical movement of the personal effects takes a little longer because we have to make a survey; we have to know what volume and what specifics we need to pack. Then we have to schedule the crew.
We are also working on some turnarounds – people who were supposed to come and now are not. They asked us that as soon as their stuff arrives in Japan to just send it back.
Have there been any requests for radiation checks?
Yes, more and more people are asking us to test their belongings for radiation before we ship them. We are not trained to do this, so we found a company that is willing to do it. The problem is they are so busy up north that scheduling such checks is very difficult and takes time.
What does all this mean for your business?
It’s not good because most of our business now is outbound, but in this industry, you need tonnage going in both directions – in and out. There is usually a nice flow of executives and corporations rotating their people. That is how our business is sustained.
Is there any inbound at all?
Some. Everytime someone asks me for inbound services, I really thank them for it. One of the problems with inbound business is that some steamship companies have diverted from Yokohama to Kobe and they are taking everything down there. So we have to deal with the issue of who pays to get the freight back to Tokyo.
Did you try to talk some of your clients out of making rash decisions?
I tried to talk some clients out of acting on panic. You have to do this on a person by person basis. Everyone reacts differently. If they are frantic, it’s best just to agree with them. With others, I can say, “Why don’t you wait a week before you take this action?” You have to read your customer.
The foreign media created a panic not just on a local basis but on a global basis and this was unconscionable. They should be brought to task over that. I had friends in the States calling me up asking me what was really going on and if I was leaving. The foreign press did a large disservice to Japan and sensationalized some information that was going to get everybody crazy.
I guess you saw a similar exodus after the Lehman Shock in 2008.
This is different. After the Lehman Shock, everybody said, “Let’s get rid of the expensive expats,” which they did. Then a year or 18 months later, they thought about it and realized they needed to send them back here.
I don’t think we’re going to see that happen this time. You have to look at it on a regional basis. The yen is strong; you’ve got this nuclear crisis and ongoing quakes which are forefront in the minds of many families. You’ve also got one of the highest costs of living in the world. Another couple of hours from here are Vietnam, China, South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia, which are less expensive. Expat execs can get maids and drivers and all the perks that many have become accustomed to. Why would they want to be stationed here?
For many people, moving under these circumstances can be traumatic. How do you deal with it?
Moving just in itself, without natural disasters or without getting fired, is stressful and disruptive. This whole situation brings out the best and worst in people. We have always had to act the part of counselor at some level. Some of our best people come from the hospitality industry where they have a certain level of empathy. I have a great staff with very little turnover. My longest-serving employee has been with us for 37 years.
How do you market the company?
We support the international schools and the various chambers of commerce. However, the business has changed over the last 10 years. Companies have refocused on global control and we are now dealing with a single point of contact in London, New York or wherever. The HR departments control the moving. It used to be that you would get a phone call informing you of your transfer from A to B. And you would call a moving company. Now, the HR department says you are going from A to B and here is the company that’s going to do it and this is the day you will do it. Most of my business is through global contracts.
Is it a seasonal business?
Yes, normally, June, July and August is the busiest time. There is a little peak in December because of the tax structure.
What are some of the unique characteristics of the Japanese market?
I used to do a lot of business to and from Japan from other locations and I could never fully comprehend why the prices were so high. Now I know. We’ve got additional requirements to offload the containers in Yokohama, and then they are transferred to a number of smaller trucks that are shuttled into and out of the residence. There is a lot of extra handling in Japan that is not the case anywhere else.
Overseas, you can take a 40-ft container right to a house, back it up the driveway and load it. Here we can’t do that. We cannot take containers right to the door because of smaller roads and parking restrictions. Sometimes, when we are moving furniture and fittings in and out of an office, we have to have a second driver sitting in the truck waiting for a policeman to come along so he can drive around the block.
What should potential clients look for in choosing a relocation company?
Trust is important. How do you feel about the person coming into your home because you are asking that company to send people into your home to pack, transport and deliver personal effects and treasured items. So we build that trust by visiting the client, seeing what they have, what we need to do and explaining the entire moving process to them.
When you are not working, how do you like to relax?
I play the guitar and sometimes, I play golf. I also like to get back to Hawaii now and again.
You can find out more, here.