Hajimemashite – Toby Otsuka, CEO of Rakuten Europe

A conversation with Rakuten Europe CEO Toby Otsuka about his career and philosophy, Rakuten corporate culture and challenges in Europe

In 2021 Rakuten Europe introduced a new leadership structure and divided responsibilities into different pillars: Growth, Activation, Strategy and Operations. In our series Hajimemashite (Nice to meet you), we caught up with the new leadership to learn more about not only their mission but also their career paths, their philosophies, and how their respective areas of expertise connect with Rakuten’s corporate culture.

For the first edition, we sat down with Toby Otsuka, CEO of Rakuten Europe, CEO of Rakuten Bank Europe and Executive Officer at Rakuten Group, Inc., who is leading the Group’s operations in the EMEA region.

You’ve been with Rakuten for almost 15 years now. How did you get involved with the company in the first place?

After returning from an MBA program in the US in the late 90s I got involved with what was considered Japan’s first online bank, where I helped securing a banking license and setting up the business. We were keen on working with Mickey right from the start and did have some early interactions, but it was only some years after that, in 2008, that Mickey showed interest in acquiring the bank. This was during the financial crisis and there was a lot of uncertainty on our side about whether the deal would come through, but Mickey kept his word he committed. And now Rakuten Bank is Japan’s biggest online bank with over 30 million customers across Japan.

I saw this courage, this business sense from Mickey and his vision. This was the moment of truth for me. At that moment I decided: I’m going stay with Rakuten. Later I moved from the banking business to Rakuten HQ and got involved with various other Rakuten businesses.

That was during a time when Rakuten was far from being a global company. What was the reason for you to leave Japan and come to Europe?

In 2014 Rakuten acquired Viber for $900 million, the company’s second-biggest acquisition to date, and I was offered the opportunity to go to Tel Aviv and become their CFO. It was rather an unusual move, which some people told me afterwards that I would reject, but having been to the US and Asia before, I said yes, moved to Tel Aviv first, then to Luxembourg later – and I still think I made a very right decision. It gave me the unique opportunity to get to know a whole new part of the world and to see, understand and value the differences, and through that, create my own leadership style and philosophy.

You mention the value of having your own philosophy. Can you share more about your motivation – What made you take the steps you took?

I majored in psychology and literature and found my passion in writing essays, novels and even poems. That’s why I wanted to pursue those talents and become a copywriter. At first glance, my actual career sounds as far from this dream as can be – but it’s not. Yes, I may have started my career with a little bit of disappointment because it felt like giving up on the idea of how I imagined my life to be, but the essence of this dream was to interact with and understand people. And I discovered that I didn’t have to give that up.

When I went to the US for an MBA program at the Univ. of Pennsylvania, I had the chance not only to learn more about business administration but also found a professor that supported me in researching with a unique approach, the behavior of people in the financial sector from a psychological perspective. That’s when I understood that I can still pursue what I wanted in my own unique way. This led to my very own people-centric philosophy and that’s always been my motivation throughout my career: Putting people first, caring for them, listening generously and actively to everyone to reflect it in my course of actions.

Your career has taken you from Japan to Asia, the US and Europe – What do you think are the specific challenges in creating business success in EMEA?

Europe is a complex and diversified market, more so than the US or Japan. Whether it be the multiple currencies, languages, cultures, or regulations—companies that want to be successful on a pan-European level need to navigate all of these aspects. This is what I love most about working here, but it’s also our biggest challenge. Over the past decade, we have acquired, founded and invested in many companies in Europe. Some, like Rakuten TV, we managed to roll out in the entire region. Others, like Viber, are strong in Eastern Europe, while still others are strong only in local markets. We need to acknowledge that, understand it and then translate it into a strategy of how we can play a role in the region as a holistic Rakuten brand.

People in Europe know Rakuten TV, Kobo, Viber or Rakuten Advertising, but they might not necessarily know the organization Rakuten Europe. Can you tell us a little bit about its purpose?

We are not a monoline company, but a group of 14 very different services in EMEA, and that comes with its own unique set of challenges. Rakuten Europe does not decide the business strategy for all of those single services, as we believe that they know their audience, their market and their specific areas best. As an organization, we see our purpose and mission as being an enabler, background support and catalyst. We find and create synergies between businesses, we aim to create a positive environment for business expansion and success, and we strive to unite all offers under one brand that consumers recognize as a gateway for their daily needs—which we like to call our Ecosystem.

A few examples of how we achieve that include our partnerships with the likes of Telefonica or the British Fashion Council, and the creation of hub platforms like Rakuten.de, Rakuten.es or Rakuten.co.uk, which bring all our offerings together in an entertaining and rewarding way. We also centralize and bundle our efforts around sustainability, foster diversity and inclusivity throughout the regions and serve as a knowledge and expertise hub.

Rakuten now has 28,000 employees and operates in many countries around the world. But its roots and global headquarters remain in Japan. What’s typically Japanese at Rakuten and what isn’t?

In Japan, we’re not considered a traditional Japanese company, even though the rest of the world might have a different view of us. The reason for this is our approach to bringing together the best of Japanese culture and embracing the influence of our global workforce.

For example, I don’t know any other corporation in Japan that has this level of diversity or a vision formed by globalization. It’s nicely represented in the fact that Rakuten was the first company in Japan to make English its official language, requiring all staff to have a certain level of English language skills. However, I know this might not be considered exceptional from a Western point of view.

On the other hand, our business code, the Rakuten Shugi, in many parts takes inspiration from Japanese culture. Omotenashi, which is Japan’s famous service mentality; Shikumika, which represents strategic thinking; Asakai, which is our all-hands company meeting every Monday morning. We also embrace practices like cleaning your own workplace –which even Mickey himself does – which are clearly rooted in Japanese concepts of respect and community spirit. Again, pretty normal in Japan, but unique from a Western perspective.

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