We caught up with the brilliant and insightful Samuel Obara a few weeks ago and have shared our conversation below.
Samuel, appreciate you joining us today. Being a business owner can be really hard sometimes. It’s rewarding, but most business owners we’ve spoken sometimes think about what it would have been like to have had a regular job instead. Have you ever wondered that yourself? Maybe you can talk to us about a time when you felt this way?
Oh the headaches of being a business owner… When I was an employee life was so much simpler. My transition into running a business was smooth since before I started Honsha.ORG, I started doing sporadic consulting to help a few companies in the Silicon Valley in California. I was doing that while I was a corporate director for a company in San Jose, CA. Today Honsha.ORG is a consulting firm focused on operational excellence and on improving a range of aspects in a client, from better delivery to higher quality to lower cost and so on. The consultant mindset is so different, it is no longer to finish the day at five and go home. The consultant thinks about how to finish the project, get the results and do all that within the allotted budget. Many times this means working overnight in the hotel room or over the weekend at home. The challenges of this type of consulting are numerous and each client has its own new puzzle for us to solve. While very challenging, it is stimulating to be working in a government agency one day and the next in a hospital or a bank. Just the variety and novelty of each case makes a day fly by in an exciting way. Although I am sure this is my calling and I love helping companies improve, the business side of the business is a different story all together. And it really keeps me up at night. Early in 2020 when the pandemics brought uncertainty to our operations worldwide, the challenges of being a business owner on top of being a consultant, got magnified a few times. Not only were there new aspects in how we dealt with insurances, taxes and new regulations, on top of that we had to re-think all the plans we had for the short, mid and long term. We needed to make sure our nearly 20 consultants in the field were safe. We also had to re-format the way we interacted with clients under the rapidly changing Covid restrictions. We needed to make sure our key associates would be financially safe through a period of slow business. And of course, we needed to conserve cash as nobody knew what tomorrow would bring. Life as an employee was indeed much simpler and sometimes I catch myself thinking what it would have been like if I were still working for a guaranteed paycheck every month. I tried the employee life since I was 11 (serious, labor laws in Brazil were OK with that) all the way to my late 30’s. Those were the days I could take vacations with no worries about work. Fast forward a bit and in these past 20 years running Honsha.ORG, I can’t remember what it is like taking a real vacation and totally disconnect from work. There is always that urgent email to respond, or that meeting to prepare for. And when it is a holiday here, it is normal work day in other countries, oh well, I knew what I was signing up for when I started. My business partner and mentor Darril Wilburn does exactly what I do and he always says: “I would not wish this type of life to anyone. But I wouldn’t change it for anything else in the world.” Today I see my work as the ride of a lifetime, there are ups and downs, I meet fascinating people in the journey, I am in constant learning mode. Ah, and having to run the business side has become easier as I can count on solid leaders who share similar vision and values. I wouldn’t change it for anything else in the world.
Samuel, love having you share your insights with us. Before we ask you more questions, maybe you can take a moment to introduce yourself to our readers who might have missed our earlier conversations?
I was born and raised in Brazil; my first job was at a factory that injected plastic buttons, those used in shirts or other clothing accessories. I was a general helper doing anything from office tasks to helping the factory make molds for the buttons. Note: I use the word “help” in a very loose sense. At that age, I think I was mostly being helped, than really helping. The 100 people factory belonged to a friend of my parents in Brazil and since I really wanted to experience real work, they gave me my first full-time job, at the age of 11. I confess that for multiple times, I wanted to quit that job within the first month, waking up at 6:45 AM every day and being accountable to a boss were a bit unexpected to me. That was when my mom taught me a couple of life lessons: 1. Be resilient, quitting every time you don’t like something is easy, see what it feels like when you persevere at something. Does it get easier? Or do you become better? She encouraged and challenged me to complete one year of that experience. (I did; then I quit the very next day. What a lesson!). 2. All choices have consequences, you must think of them before making choices. It’s all about responsibility, my mom would say (my twin boys are 10 and I am trying to pass that on to them. They just can’t stop eating candy the entire day!). 3. It seemed evident that this job was a favor a friend did for my parents so I could learn the reality of adult life. But I also suspect my parents were having a hard time dealing with a hyperactive kid at home and needed to find something for me to stay busy. At 14 I went to a technical high school where I studied electromechanics, a degree that required three-years attending school and another year as an intern. My internship at age 17 was definitely the turning point of my life. I still ask myself, “what if I had made a different internship choice?” Here’s what I mean: My dad worked for General Motors his entire life and at that time could easily help me get enrolled for an internship in the largest automotive company in the world! That was a dream opportunity for any kid looking for internship. But I didn’t take it. At that same year in 1984, Toyota started experimenting with the internship format and had 2 open positions. Back then, Toyota Brazil was making less than a dozen FJ pick-up trucks a day and only local people in the rural and agricultural areas knew the brand. There was no comparison to GM, with all of its glamour and reputation. Toyota? Most people in Brazil would not even know what Toyota made. There were no Toyota passenger cars in Brazil at that time. I ended up applying for that internship position at Toyota since it was much closer to home and I could walk to the factory every day. Yes, the decision for choosing to intern at Toyota was based on the distance between my home and the company; talk about comfort zone. What if GM had been closer? I still wonder. My 13 years as a full-time employee with Toyota brought me unimaginable experiences like living in Toyota City, Japan for a few years, learning how they work. Living for months in Venezuela to learn how to start a new Toyota production line in that country. Working side-by-side with Toyota Senseis (master trainers) in California, Philippines, the UK and Brazil. My admiration for this company and confidence in its methodologies led me to start Honsha.ORG, a Toyota-alumni association where retirees and former professionals like myself help organizations of all sectors and industries to apply the Toyota method (now known around the world as Lean) to improve and solve their problems. With close to 40 years of Lean experience, I am very fortunate to be associated with Honsha.ORG, which has helped more than 450 companies. These include projects in environments ranging from schools to hospitals to military and many others in a variety of countries including China, Mexico, Canada, Indonesia, Brazil, Japan, Austria, the UK and the United States. In 2020 the president of Toyota Brazil commissioned Honsha.ORG to help its supplier base. Although years before that we were already helping Toyota sites in Michigan and Philippines with coaching of their leaders. Our relationship with Toyota worldwide allows us to bring Honsha-client executives from all over the world every year to visit their sites in Japan and learn from their Senseis, straight from the source, in Toyota City.
Can you tell us the story behind how you met your business partner?
It was back in 2007 when I met Darril Wilburn for the first time. At that time, he was living in San Antonio, TX, while I was living in San Diego, CA; so I proposed we meet ‘somewhere in the middle’; in Salt Lake City. (I was doing a project for a client there). The story began there. Darril was interested in leaving the corporate life to experiment in the consulting world. The plan in my mind was to just ‘meet and greet’ for dinner and the following day bring him to see the work I was doing. No promises or long-term plans at all; although I was always on the lookout for people who could help me with sporadic overflow of projects and clients. It turns out he quickly demonstrated he could do all of what I was doing. Actually, on that first encounter, if I had wanted to, I could have even taken the day off, gone back to the hotel and let him do my work for that day; he knew what to do and how. Of course, that wouldn’t have been fair. How could I ask someone I’d just met, to suddenly take over a client with which I was nurturing a relationship? That would’ve been so irresponsible (and I learned at an early age to be responsible …or so I thought). Well, it turns out I did ask him and he did take over, for a couple of hours. When I came back and saw the impact Darril had had on the group while I was gone, I began considering him for more work and larger clients. By the way, I used those hours to escape to see the company’s CEO and propose a totally different, personal project: A mission trip with him and two of his top VPs to Mombasa and Nairobi, to help a couple of struggling businesses (a micro finance firm and a farm that extracted oil from coconuts). That mission-trip initiative later became Lean for Hope, a humanitarian arm of Honsha.ORG. I have very fond memories of my time in Africa, but we can leave those for another edition, if you ever want to interview me again. Darril gradually started expanding Honsha.ORG’s client base. Whenever demand outgrew our capacity, he would onboard more associates that he personally knew from Toyota. He then expanded his contributions to the organization by creating internal assets, developing new resources, managing commercial relationships, improving our cost; the list got so long that it became obvious he would be key to Honsha.ORG’s growth. Along all the years I’ve known him, I continue to admire his high standards in work ethics, values and vision. He’s had options to work in other consulting firms and could have also gone solo at any time, so I feel very fortunate that he’s chosen to invest his life in Honsha.ORG. Although it did take me about 10 years of working side-by-side, to offer him a partnership. Today Darril runs most of our operations in the US, Canada and Europe and heads Honsha.ORG’s Executive Development Mission (EDM) where we bring groups of executives to Japan a few times a year.