Longread

Leading a major property developer with an eye on art and culture

This series explores topics surrounding women who began their careers in Japan following the implementation of equal opportunities employment legislation in the mid-1980s. With many now reaching the age of retirement, it is hoped their stories can provide insight and lessons for women in Japan’s professional world today.
Leading a major property developer with an eye on art and culture

In the modern professional world, there is an infinite array of career choices: which industry to join, which company (or whether to start one), which location, which function — the list goes on. We may open a door full of hope, only to close it with a sigh after a few years. This soul-searching iteration can continue until late in our lives — even in Japan, where lifetime employment is now an almost arcane concept.

For the chosen few, however, the choice is nonexistent from the beginning. There is in fact only one door, with a neon sign flashing the word “Enter.” The driving force could be innate — you have a singular talent for something — or it could be that you are born into a family-run business and never question that destiny. In the latter case, your success hinges on the level of your emotional and intellectual alignment to the business.

Miwako Date is the 52-year-old granddaughter of Taikichiro Mori, founder of real estate conglomerate Mori Group. Over three generations, the Mori family single-handedly redeveloped numerous landmark complexes in the heart of Tokyo and has been dubbed by some as “the landlord of Minato Ward.”

Date found a natural alignment to the real estate development business. Having succeeded her father, Akira Mori, Date has been, since 2016, CEO of Mori Trust, a real estate development firm born from Mori Group and with over ¥260 billion in operating revenue and 97 facilities managed and operated as of March 2023.

But is the prominent family name ever a burden?

“I am conscious of the special treatment (as a founder family member) in, say, negotiations with authorities," she said. While it may have gnawed at her in the early days, today she seems to have restrained the glow of her namesake. It is no longer a defining factor for her, but an extra ingredient to the respect she has earned through her own merit.

A sense of purpose

“When he was over 50, my grandfather (Taikichiro Mori) embarked upon the modernization of Tokyo's Minato Ward with a strong conviction that urban Tokyo must be built upon competitive business infrastructure,” Date said, “and he believed in the role of our family business as a public vessel.”

This philosophy has been passed on from grandfather to father to Date.

“Long-term commitment runs through the family,” said Yoriko Soma, Date’s long-term close friend and president of Conceptasia, a wellness and spa consultancy. The Mori family's approach is to ensure long-term prosperity for any property it develops, Soma said, a stark contrast with the “sell-off-while-developing” transactional attitude commonly observed in Asian real estate developers.

“He was an educator,” Date said of her grandfather, who was originally an economist at Yokohama City University until the age of 55, after which he turned his full attention to real estate development.

"I would go visit him as he sat in a wheelchair, and he would ask me questions that felt like an interview to me,” she said. “My aunt later told me that my grandfather would confide in her that my answers were 'excellent.'"

Ark Hills, the first of the modern “Hills” developments in Tokyo's Minato Ward — combining office and commercial space, residences, a hotel and the acclaimed Suntory Hall concert venue — was inaugurated in 1986 and is a prime example of Taikichiro Mori’s large-scale redevelopment projects. Date, who was a teenager when Ark Hills was completed, etched the before-and-after contrast into her heart — “Before they started construction, there was not much. Then Ark Hills came into shape with sparkles changing the whole landscape.”

Of Taikichiro Mori’s three sons, the younger two inherited the family business while the eldest became an academic. The second son, Minoru Mori, who died in 2012, took the helm of Mori Building, originally a Mori Group company that focused on long-term urban redevelopment consolidating fragmented residential ownership, from his father in 1993. He further expanded urban development with large, multi-decade projects in Minato Ward, exemplified by Roppongi Hills, which was completed in 2003.

The youngest son of Taikichiro Mori, Akira Mori, Date’s father, built his career with Mori Building alongside Minoru Mori and later became CEO of Mori Trust, another Mori Group company. Mori Trust focused on the midterm proprietary development of urban complexes, as well as the development and running of resort and hotel operations throughout Japan. While Mori Building chose to stay close to its roots in Minato Ward, Mori Trust took an expansionary approach, eventually broadening its real estate investment portfolio beyond Japan.

The dissolution from 1999 of the capital relationship between the two businesses — Mori Building and Mori Trust — meant an increased degree of management freedom for both, while the family stayed united in its core principle of long-term commitment to the properties it developed.

According to Date, it is a Mori family tradition to lunch together every week. Originally, her grandfather, father and uncle would huddle over every project at these lunches. Hearing about these conversations from her father as a college student helped Date prepare herself for the family business. When she joined Mori Trust in 1998 at the age of 27, she had graduated with a master’s degree in urban planning from Keio University and had spent several years at a think tank. To this date, Date carries on the family work lunch tradition with her father.

“The Mori family is truly one of a kind, in terms of its contribution to the modern Japanese economy,” said Kengo Kuma, an acclaimed architect known for his involvement in the design of Japan's National Stadium and who frequently collaborates with Mori Trust. He attributes the sustained global competitiveness of urban real estate development in Tokyo, despite a decadeslong relative decline in the country’s economic prowess, largely to the Mori family.

Evolving portfolio

In 2000, at the age of 29, Date was an executive board member of Mori Trust, with her father as CEO. But this didn't mean she was giving orders from an ivory tower. “I covered a wide spectrum of work, ranging from designing an office kitchen and negotiating unit rates down to the yen to making large investment decisions worth hundreds of billions of yen,” she said with a smile.

Date believes that all experiences are meaningful.

“Everything is eventually connected,” she said. That connection, however, may be less than obvious to untrained eyes. “Connecting the dots is the job of management.”

Where a worker might only focus on a project, Date sees the larger context, of which the project is just a part. To define a long-term path forward, Date announced Mori Trust’s mid- to long-term vision when she was appointed as CEO in 2016 and set out action plans and targets for the next decade.

“You must avoid being only partially optimized,” she said, highlighting her credo as CEO, before explaining the challenge and reward of portfolio optimization.

“While COVID-19 brought tourism to its knees, you could already project inbound tourists returning after a surge of domestic travelers,” she said. “It is therefore important to have elements that appeal to both in your portfolio.”

To optimize the business portfolio, Date is unafraid to make unorthodox strategic decisions. Yoshinori Yamashita — chairperson of imaging equipment manufacturer Ricoh — who serves Keizai Doyukai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives), one of the largest economic organizations in Japan, as vice chairperson alongside Date, applauded her audacity for investing in U.S. real estate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She reads the long-term trend,” he said. “Where a regular real estate developer gets stuck on a transactional return on investment, she focuses on the big story over the long haul — like investing in a life science laboratory cluster with excellent environmental sustainability grade.”

However, Date doesn't necessarily make gut-based judgments. “We research (each investment) to death,” she said. “Even if you think you have the answer, we will still assess alternatives.”

Scenarios may be made, but “we would never make an investment based on the best-case (scenario).”

Thorough investigation is something she learned from her father, who “searches for negatives from all possible angles.”

“My father translated everything into numbers,” she said, “and it is very important lest a project becomes an artwork — it must first be a viable business case.”

It was in 2008, eight years before Date succeeded her father as Mori Trust CEO, that he tapped her for potential succession without specifying the timing. Undoubtedly, it encouraged her to “think like the CEO” early on. By 2015, she felt ready — “I had a sense of accomplishment and felt ready to delegate the day-to-day to the team.”

The hotel branding business had come into shape to complement the real estate development business, helped through alliances with Hilton and Marriott International. When she was promoted to CEO of Mori Trust in 2016, Date was 45 years old and a rare female CEO in the male-dominated real estate industry.

Regional luxury hotels

Having been at the helm for eight years, Date says she is comfortable taking some risk in the knowledge that the other businesses continue to hum along. Some luxury hotels outside the metropolitan regions fall into this category, in which she enjoys being creative, momentarily taking her hands off the wheel of rigorous calculation.

"Sometimes I dare take chances," Date said.

She contrasts her creative approach with a purely logical one exemplified by artificial intelligence: “Management by AI would only produce safe answers that worked in the past,” she said.

Betting on creativity allows her to push the envelope of her company's boundaries. Interestingly, it was her father, the lover of numbers, who taught her to find possibilities in “no-data” areas while referring to the past — a privilege reserved for human management.

It is in this spirit that Date experiments with luxury hotels using SUI, the house brand of Mori Trust, targeting high-net-worth travelers from abroad. While post-COVID Japan is a coveted destination for overseas tourists, it currently lacks the capacity for receiving these savvy spenders.

Date “truly understands the requirements of the high-net-worth clientele her luxury hotels serve, because she is one of them,” said Soma.

For Kuma, regional luxury hotels suggest a potential waiting to be unlocked. “(In my work) I come across architectural or garden heritage dormant in the regions whose cultural power can attract travelers,” he said, “but the hurdle (for redevelopment) is high for us because of local administrative barriers.”

Shisui, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Nara opened in 2023, and is a ground-breaking example of awakening a regional architectural treasure in the ancient capital of Nara. Mori Trust, in collaboration with Kuma, converted the old prefectural governor’s official residence, built in 1922, into a luxury hotel under the double branding of Marriott’s high-end Luxury Collection and SUI.

Kuma summarized its significance: Firstly, Shisui fills the void of luxury hospitality that Nara, and the rest of Japan for that matter, had lacked. According to Date, reservations are filled for months ahead by overseas travelers. Secondly, it transformed Nara into a multi-day destination, rather than a day trip stopover from Kyoto. “(Shisui) allowed Nara to step up to a whole new level,” Kuma said.

Regional revitalization through the healthy growth of tourism is a societal agenda for Japan. "The Mori family should be appreciated for its contribution in the regions, not only in big cities like Tokyo,” said Kuma.

Female CEO in a man’s world

Soma lets on that Date is an accomplished golfer and a thoughtful cook.

"Cooking comes naturally to Date when we visit her second house. Both resourceful and hospitable, she will surprise us with rice balls (made from leftover cooked rice) if we had a morning golf appointment,” said Soma, who is frequently invited to spend weekends with Date along with a group of friends.

If she feels stress, Date seldom shows it.

“In private moments, she never complains about work or bad-mouths people,” Soma said, while acknowledging that Date may be wary of people who approach her to curry favor.

“She never mixes professional and personal acquaintances,” Soma said, before expressing that she suspects that this is a self-defense measure.

“Her mental strength allows her to process challenges without overstretching,” said Yamashita, “which must come from her upbringing and her own efforts.”

In a separate interview, Kuma elaborated on Yamashita’s point — “Her self-assuredness must be the outcome of the cultural nourishment the Mori family provided.”

The Japanese sensibility of simplicity and elegance bodes well with the high-end luxury the world is looking for, according to Kuma. But it takes a cultured mind with financial power to materialize the vision — enter the Mori family. The embrace of culture makes the family special in Kuma’s mind because “it goes against the grain of conventional Japanese education — (compared to science or engineering,) liberal arts was considered somewhat unserious, something reserved for women and children.”

Perhaps through Date, the female CEO and heir of Mori Trust, the traditionally feminine potential of culture may be even better presented than through another male real estate CEO.

“She signals her sense of culture through her tasteful fashion,” said Kuma. “She is a student of architecture and likes it, which is unusual for the Japanese executive class often saddled with an architectural inferiority complex.

“I find the coexistence of culture and shrewd business acumen in Date to be a unique combination.”

Date belongs to the minority among us, having seen one door to walk through at the beginning of her career and having happily stuck to her decision to use it, although she said that “all options were open to me when my grandfather and father asked me (what I wanted to do) in college.”

Did it ever occur to her to try something completely different, like aspiring to be a cartoonist or novelist, for example? Shaking her head, she said, “Real estate development and hotel branding is a wide spectrum to cover.

“I just want to keep providing something useful to society in a sustainable way.”

BY NOBUKO KOBAYASHI

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