HIROSHIMA (Reuters) - Kaoru Koyano’s unlikely career arc has taken him from dark-suited investment banker to plum-purple professional sports mascot. In between, he was called in to fix the balance sheet of the hottest team in Japanese soccer, Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
When Sanfrecce sealed their second straight J.League title earlier this month with a 2-0 win over Kashima Antlers, Koyano took the field to hold up the banner for fans alongside fist-pumping players, the culmination of an unlikely year of reinvention.
“When I was an investment banker, my focus was to make things happen. I focused on how to win a deal and tried to control as many things as possible,” the 50-year-old told Reuters.
“Now certain important things are out of my control - the weather and the game result. So now I would say I am better at accepting things.”
After a career at Credit Suisse Group AG, Citigroup and Nomura Research Institute, ardent amateur soccer fan Koyano was hired as Hiroshima’s general manager in January for his financial acumen.
His predecessor resigned at the end of 2012 after a string of losses for investors, including Osaka-based home appliance retailer Edion Corp.
At the time, Hiroshima had just won the J.League championship but its losses off the field threatened to undermine its success.
As of this year, any team sustaining losses for three straight years, or those with liabilities exceeding assets, risks losing their J.League license.
So when Koyano went to work improving Hiroshima’s profitability, he started by interviewing fans before games or waiting at the nearby train station on the way home.
Fans would often press him about the club’s strategy on acquiring new talent while Koyano would ask them for advice on how to boost season ticket sales.
“They tell us things we don’t notice,” says Koyano.
One of the unsolicited marketing suggestions was aimed at the club’s fan-friendly general manager himself. Supporters urged Koyano to make himself a team mascot.
Thus was born “Koyanon,” a caricature of Koyano that plays up his chubbiness and carefully parted hair with a made-in-Japan manga-style cute.
In September, Sanfrecce released its first Koyanon collectible — a key holder. It sold out quickly.
In October came the Koyanon t-shirts. Wrist bands followed in November.
Koyano has made public appearances to promote the collectibles - and pitch Hiroshima’s season tickets - but said he feels pressure from the move from the back office to being in the limelight as the nerd-celebrity face of the franchise.
“I am taking a risk in becoming a club character,” he said, adding that a losing streak could prompt criticism that Hiroshima management had lost focus.
“It’s not necessarily good that a club’s general manager becomes so visible.”
In Koyano’s previous life, his closest brush with notoriety came in a deal that was never done.
While working as a merger and acquisition banker with Credit Suisse, Koyano was an advisor for Hokuetsu Kishu Paper Co, then known as Hokuetsu Paper Mills, the target of a failed acquisition attempt by Oji Paper in 2006.
If it had succeeded, the deal would have been Japan’s first hostile takeover.
A graduate of the University of Tokyo - the launchpad for Japan’s bureaucratic elite - Koyano left investment banking in 2009 to set up his own consulting firm.
Edion’s chairman and chief executive, Masataka Kubo, a former client from Koyano’s banking days, brought him to Sanfrecce as an outside director in April 2012.
The J.League started with 10 clubs in 1993 that all had ties to the sponsored teams of Japanese corporations, including Mazda Motor Corp and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The league has expanded to 18 teams in the first division and 22 in the second.
As a banker, Koyano developed a habit of poring through the financial statements of each soccer club, searching for signs of weaknesses and opportunity - as a coach would do to an opposing squad list.
Now he is part of the revenue stream at Hiroshima as Koyanon.
“If my exposure becomes a topic among fans, that could help the club.”
Editing by Kevin Krolicki/Peter Rutherford