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Grandpa Would Be Pleased

As the rising Sun climbs above Japan each morning, the 3,700 employees of the Mizuno Corporation stand and sing the company song: "Sun rises east of Asia, love your home country, love your work. Company badge shining on our chest...."

The ritual is a Japanese tradition continued by an untraditional Japanese, Masato Mizuno, 46, the company's president and grandson of its founder. In a society filled with smokers and drinkers, Masato does neither. In a land where golf is a religion, he skis. He drives a 1967 Ford Mustang and wears red suspenders. "He's not the regular Japanese president of a billion-dollar company," says one of his advisers.

But under Mizuno's freewheeling leadership the Mizuno Corp. of Osaka has blossomed. In fact, with sales of its more than 30,000 products expected to exceed $1.2 billion this year, Mizuno has become one of the leading sporting goods companies in the world.

On the company's "advisory staff" (read "paid endorsers") are NFL quarterbacks Joe Montana and John Elway; running back Roger Craig; sprinters Florence Griffith Joyner, Carl Lewis and Joe DeLoach; the U.S. volleyball and speed skating teams; and 240 U.S. major league baseball players who wear Mizuno gloves and shoes. "You see the name so much, you hardly think it's Japanese," says San Francisco Giants manager Roger Craig, who wears Mizuno shoes and recently bought Mizuno golf clubs.

This fall the company plans to launch its exclusive "Flo-Jo" sportswear line; it signed the sprinter to a multimillion-dollar shoe contract shortly before the Seoul Olympics. A track shoe autographed by Griffith Joyner sits on a shelf in Mizuno's office in Tokyo. A life-size Flo-Jo mannequin—complete with fingernails painted by the real-life Flo-Jo—can be found in Mizuno's Tokyo store.

Mannequins and endorsements were not in the mind of Rihachi Mizuno, a kimono shop worker, when he opened a baseball equipment store in 1906. By 1934 he was producing bats, balls and uniforms, golf clubs and skis at a small factory near Osaka. When the government ordered him to build gliders during World War II, he agreed, then switched to making furniture and frying pans when the war was over. Soon, however, Rihachi returned to sporting goods, producing baseball gloves out of sailcloth when he couldn't find leather and injecting resin into wooden bats to make them last longer. "Everybody thought he was crazy," Masato says of his grandfather, "but it worked."

Masato learned his excellent English while attending Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., from 1966 to '70. Two years ago, when Masato took over the presidency of the Mizuno Corp. from his father, Kenjiro, he inherited a sagging corporate image. In the early '80s business had slowed, partly because of a lag in the Japanese economy, partly because the company had grown stagnant.

Masato computerized the inventory system and shifted the emphasis in manufacturing toward automation. His research department invented robots that can wind the cores for 4,000 baseballs per day, many more than can be wound by hand, and a system of painting golf clubs that allows workers to produce several hundred more clubs per day.

Masato is now courting Japan's yuppies. He has filled his retail stores in Tokyo and Osaka with gimmicks and gadgets. "We wanted it to be fun," he says. There is plenty of that. In need of acupuncture treatment? Pop into the trainer's room on the Osaka building's third floor, where a licensed acupuncturist and a masseuse are always on duty. Want to get the feel of that new golf club? On the sixth floor in Tokyo, golfers can hit balls at video targets or putt on an elevated artificial green.

As a result of aggressive marketing, Mizuno has grabbed 30% of all golf-club and baseball sales in Japan and has designs on the American and British markets. Mizuno currently has only a small market share of the Softball equipment and apparel industry in the U.S., but it hopes to increase that.

Masato Mizuno has plans to turn his company into a full-service sports organization. Travel agencies are already setting up sports tours that can be purchased at almost every Mizuno outlet in Japan. And Masato operates 60 golf schools throughout the country. "We have 50,000 graduates," he says proudly. He predicts sales will hit $3.9 billion by 2001.

"We want to be able to meet every sports need," says Masato. "And we want true internationalization. Those are our goals."