Shoichiro Iwata is the ultimate pencil pusher. The president of Askul Corp. supplies 1.5 million Japanese small businesses with millions of writing instruments--and everything from paper clips to PCs besides. Askul buys direct from manufacturers and passes along savings of up to 40%. Add to that a catalogue with more than 12,000 items and guaranteed delivery within 24 hours, and you have a formula for success. "We're a convenience store for the office," says Iwata, a youthful 50-year-old who still sports the rugby-player build he developed in college.
Iwata dreamed up Askul--short for "come tomorrow" in Japanese--while working at PLUS Corp. of Japan, the country's second-largest maker and wholesaler of stationery. Iwata started the company as a subsidiary of PLUS in 1993 and targeted Japan's 6.2 million small companies, which were especially hard hit by the economic slowdown. He groomed a network of 1,400 sales agents to market Askul's cheap, convenient service. "People forget that the focus should be on the consumer," says Iwata, who once sold hair-care products.
Askul, which also has an online unit, is now the fastest-growing division at PLUS. Sales jumped nearly 60% last year, and Iwata expects profits to hit $4.8 million on $615 million in sales for the year ended May, 2001.
Not all is rosy, however. Askul's shares have lost half their value since April 11, when Iwata lowered his profit forecasts. The collapse of the global tech bubble means less demand for office supplies. Still, with millions of small businesses not yet using Iwata's service, there's plenty of room for future growth.