Entrepreneur John Lemkuil has been through the worst of times in Japan since he started his company in 1991 – he’s experienced the end of the bubble era, 20 years of recession, the Lehman shock and the March 11 disaster. But his company, Computec, has continued to grow, thanks to a solid business strategy, a top team and expertise in cutting-edge technology.
Computec is the top network systems integrator for the international community in Japan. It has branches in Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei and Seoul, providing high-end multilingual IT solutions and support for more than 700 clients in financial services, medical, retail, communications, higher education, government, foreign and domestic law firms.
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Lemkuil graduated from the University of Iowa in computer and electrical engineering. After graduation, he went to Washington DC and worked for the presidential campaign of the first George Bush.
In 1989, he took a year off to visit Japan … and never went back.
Japan Today visits Lemkuil at his office in the Computec building in Ichigaya to hear more.
Why did you decide to start your own company?
I had done some consulting work for large international companies and was working as an IT manager for a big law firm. I saw that many companies and organizations were not being adequately served by their technology vendors. A client’s IT team is often busy working on day-to-day issues and they don’t have time to work on cutting edge new services. So I saw a niche market.
Was it difficult getting clients at first?
No, my first customer was my former employer. I helped them with their IT systems. From the very beginning, I grew the company organically. We now have more than 700 clients.
What are Computec’s main services?
We do computer consulting for multinational firms. Our strengths are IP telephony, and we have a very strong team of bilingual engineers proficient in that. We also provide network solutions, servers and application services, IT relocation services, structured LAN cabling systems, software development, as well as audio visual systems.
What is the fastest-growing sector?
I’d say IP telephony with the unification of video, voice and data all into one network.
Who are your clients?
Fortune 500 multinational firms, 80-90% of foreign and domestic law firms, some universities. Most are long-term clients who have come to us through word of mouth and referrals.
How do you market the company?
We have never really needed a sales team. Our people are our best marketing means. We spend a lot of money and time educating our people and getting them certified. Because of that, their technical skills are much higher than our competitors. In fact, all our staff, including secretaries and even my accounting person, are certified in some computer application.
Tell us a bit more about the training.
One of the things we do is pay all our engineers an extra 10% per month for training allowance. This can be used for purchasing study materials, to enroll in training courses including overseas training, and to purchase hardware and software for training purposes. Often, engineers can get too busy, so we give them two hours every two weeks or one week a year just to study.
For the newest cutting edge products, we need to send our engineers overseas to the maker’s office or to a training center to work with hardware manufacturers or software makers’ development teams and engineers. We’ve sent employees to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore to get training. Or, say Oracle comes out with its newest technologies, applications and services. We need to send our engineers to the U.S. for a training course. We’ll pay for the course and accommodation.
We also have many in-house training and mentoring sessions. As a result, I’m happy to say that we have a very low staff turnover.
How do you keep up with the latest technology?
I attend training courses myself once or twice a year. That helps me know what is coming and how we need to position ourselves in Japan.
How many engineers do you have?
About 30 engineers in Japan and another 25 engineers in our other offices. Of those in Japan, 60% are Japanese and the rest come from the U.S., UK, Australia, and Philippines.
How did you recruit them?
We got them in various ways – word of mouth, or they contacted us. Sometimes, we use the Ecentral job site. We do spend a lot of time recruiting because we need highly qualified bilingual people. Maybe 10 years ago, only speaking English was fine, but now, most of our clients require bilingual.
How did the March 11 disaster affect business?
We had more opportunities after March 11 because some clients lost their IT people. They needed us to take over their IT support. There was more demand for generators, back-up systems and a lot of business from companies in Osaka, Fukuoka, Hiroshima and Nagoya, creating back-up sites. I am optimistic that 2011 will be a very good year. Our clients are investing in Japan, which is good.
You survived the Lehman shock pretty well too, didn’t you?
In 2008, many of our clients downsized after the Lehman shock but they still needed someone to take care of their IT systems. So instead of having a full-time IT team, they would come to us and ask if we could send an engineer there 10 or 20 hours a week. Other companies moved and needed us to install new systems.
What is a typical day for you?
I live upstairs, so I don’t have to commute. I get to the office between 7:30 and 8 a.m. I’m out a lot networking at ACCJ events, talking to clients and partners. I do some wining and dining. I have a good team, so I tend to delegate.
How do you like to relax?
I play golf and watch my sons play soccer, sing and take part in other activities.