Swan Bakery, JapanThe Challenge
Aug 17, 2010
The Japanese have traditionally believed that social issues should be the responsibility of the government, not to be interfered with by private individuals and businesses. However, the government’s lackadaisical attitude towards social and welfare policy has made these issues an increasingly pressing concern for Japan. This has stirred individuals to take matters into their own hands, providing necessary social and economic support to disadvantaged groups such as the elderly, the homeless and, critically, the disabled. Japan has an estimated disabled population of over six million, including the physically, mentally and intellectually disabled. Though Japan is considering the ratification of the U.N Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which advocates equal opportunities and full participation, a January 2010 government report discovered that nearly 7 in 10 disabled people have faced discrimination and biased treatment in Japan. While many are employed in joint community and sheltered workshops located throughout Japan, their wages remain low and their independence out of reach.
The Entrepreneur and Solution
Mr. Masao Ogura was aware of this issue. He believed greatly in the normalization of life for the disabled, dreaming of a society where those with and without disabilities would live and work together. Working with Mr. Seiichi Takaki, President of the national Takaki Bakery chains, Ogura established the Swan Bakery in Tokyo’s Ginza district in 1998 to achieve his goal. He named the bakery after Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the ugly duckling’s transformation into a beautiful swan, embedding Swan Bakery’s social mission of rehabilitation in its very name.
Through the Swan Bakery, Ogura employed and trained people with disabilities to work for the bakery’s factory and to provide service in its associated Swan Cafes. Determined to empower his employees, Ogura developed a management system in which decision-making was employee driven and positions were tailored to suit each staff’s needs and skills. He provided the disabled with steady incomes, enhancing the self-reliance and independence of Swan employees, who earn up to twice the salary of their fellows at other companies. In establishing the Swan Bakery, Ogura also created an arena in which those with and without disabilities interact on a daily basis. This has served to dispel discriminatory misconceptions and encourage the participation of the disabled in Japanese society. Ogura has furthered this phenomenon by setting up neighbourhood programs. Through these programs, Swan staff volunteer in their local neighbourhoods and surroundings, maintaining strong and close relationships with residents.
Ogura was determined not to demean the disabled. As such, he insisted that Swan Bakery products should be competitive and marketable. His company would not be sustained by the sympathy of the public for its disabled staff, but rather by the preference for its superior quality and service. Swan Bakery is now profitable, with ever growing product lines and revenue streams. To differentiate itself from competitors, Swan Bakery has developed a line of cakes designed for those allergic to eggs and cream. It has also expanded its operations to include e-commerce and online orders, allowing some of its employees to work from home.
Though its entrepreneurial and visionary founder Masao Ogura has passed, the legacy of the Swan Bakery and Cafes continues to grow and flourish. A successful café chain with a strong reputation for high quality baked goods, Swan Bakery now employs more than 280 disabled people in 26 franchises throughout Japan.