Profiles: Roy Yamada

Roy Yamada

Roy Yamada

BA Management 63

Past President, Japan Airport Service Co. Ltd. (JASCO)

Exploring New Territory


When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Roy Yamada was one of an estimated 160,000 Japanese Americans living in Hawaii, which was still a US territory. Roy Yamada's family was ethnically Japanese, but American citizens. Everything was in short supply during the war. Roy's father saw the opportunity to start a laundry and dry-cleaning plant. During the war, business was good, but as the war began to wind down, the military population dwindled to only 21,000 by 1950.

Just as the numbers were declining in Hawaii, they were growing in Japan because of the Korean War. Roy's father saw the same situation in Tokyo. He took his business there while his partner maintained the plant in Hawaii. Roy Yamada spent his early childhood in a tropical paradise under martial law, and his adolescence in an occupied foreign land. His parents enrolled him first in a military school and then later in the American School, where most of the students were the children of diplomats and businessmen. He graduated in 1958, with a class of 28 students.

Fresh out of high school, Roy decided to attend a CSU to be closer to family in San Francisco. There were 28,000 students and Roy easily got caught up in the activities, clubs, football games, floats, parties and girls. He majored in business, but did not spend much time on his studies. After about a year and a half, Roy wanted a change. He went to visit his aunt and uncle who lived near Steiner Street in San Francisco one weekend. They encouraged Roy to continue school, so he started looking at various colleges in San Francisco. In those days, Golden Gate University was still located in the old San Francisco YMCA building on Golden Gate Avenue, just blocks from where Roy was living with his aunt and uncle.

"It changed my life. It made me prioritize my time. At that time, there was not much of a social life at the college, which was good for me because I had socialized quite a lot at the state university. The professors were outstanding and took a real interest in their courses. Golden Gate was a commuter school and most of the students were working, so they were serious."

Roy earned a BBA, then enlisted in the US Army and was sent to Germany for three years. After, he went home to Hawaii for six months then finally moved to Japan to work at his father's laundry plant.

The Korean War had been the elder Yamada's ticket into doing business in Japan, but since its end, he had been expanding in new directions. Linen supply was the first of what would ultimately become an array of service companies. They made contracts with large franchisors such as McDonald's, Dairy Queen, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. From there, the franchisor would notify them of branch openings. At the time, most Japanese companies overlooked linen rental. It was a new concept, and the Yamadas had foresight.

By the late 1960s, the linen supply business was booming. From supplying linens to restaurants, the family company was expanding to provide headrest covers for Pan Am and Northwest at Tokyo's international airport. Then one day, the elder Yamada received a phone call from the customs officer at the airport. Yamada's father was asked to teach English to the customs agents.

Later, his father was encouraged to form a company to compete with the services provided by Japan Airlines. They were looking for better service and lower costs. The problem, of course, was that there were numerous governmental regulations about the foreign ownership of businesses in Japan. The officials at Northwest and Pan Am, as well as the customs office, offered to back the Yamada project, and wrote letters to the Department of Transportation. The government officials called him and offered him the license, on the condition that foreigners would not own more than 50% of the company.

Mr. Yamada recruited some Japanese executives to become partners and hired some new workers; all had karate experience. Karate was vital to the company because strikes were frequent in this line of business. Roy remembers the fright of having to break picket lines. For a decade, labor disputes were commonplace for Roy Yamada.

They expanded into cleaning the planes and cargo, provide ground handling, loading and unloading the planes. They operated without any equipment, only manpower, which they later found was illegal. In Japan, you have to own the equipment. So they purchased airline equipment at book value. Davenroye Service Co. Ltd. (later JASCO) was on its way to become a dominant player at one of the busiest airports on the planet.

For a decade, Yamada arrived at work never knowing how much equipment had been vandalized the night before, or if union members would again be attempting to block his workers. It was a relief when a truce was finally called. Eventually, Roy left the linen supply business, and his younger brother, Leslie, took over and today remains the company president. Roy's new task was to expand the family business.

When Roy retired and left Japan in the late 1990s, the corporation employed some 2,000 people, with about 750 of them providing a range of services at the Narita Airport -- everything from cleaning the airliner cabins to staffing the information booths to handling the airport's VIP lounges.

Japan's economy was struggling when the Yamada brothers decided to try their hands in the part of the education industry that operates the English-language schools. They also went into the travel business. The corporation also entered into the insurance and manpower business and runs an Andersen Bakery franchise. As it turns out, housing in Narita is a difficult and extremely expensive proposition, and many employees who are recruited from areas outside the city struggle to find a place to live. So the company had to provide dormitories and a gym for the workers. About half of Davenroye's employees live in the company dormitories.

After making his home in Japan for three decades, Roy and his wife, Sandra, returned to their native Hawaii to care for her aged parents and Roy's ailing father. He sold his stocks to his brother, who was still in the linen supply business. Now, Roy is in charge of the Davenroye Enterprises Ltd., a 100% subsidiary development company in Hawaii. It's a small company, with a small staff, and several properties. Roy says he is semi-retired and plays golf more often. Roy's son, Ryan, followed in his father's footsteps and went to Golden Gate University to study real estate development and finance, although his current interest is in the healthcare industry.