Yokoyama on Teamwork, Vision, Joy in Work, and
“What was that
“I’m not sure, it flew by too quickly and I
was laughing too hard. But it was probably a
salmon—it was pretty big.”
Flying salmon? Laughing too hard? Welcome to the most
financially successful and fun 1,200 square feet of sales
space on the planet—Pike Place Fish Market in
Seattle. John Yokoyama is a self-admitted former hard
driving, hard-nosed old style boss. But some years back,
at the brink of business failure, he ran into Jim
Bergquist—strategic business coach. They had a
meeting, someone said, “We should become world
famous!” and everyone, including John, agreed. The
rest is history as they say. This is one of the most
engaging looks into business success that you will ever
read about. By the way, their new vision for Pike Place
Fish Market? “World Peace, an Idea Whose Time Has
NFC: John, you’re the inventor of the
fish market and Jim Bergquist has been your consultant.
If no one had ever heard of the fish market and how you
run it, how would you describe your vision of
Yokoyama: Pike Place Fish is a company
that’s created a working environment where the
employees can have a lot of fun and also produce
phenomenal results out of that. Everybody wants to find
out how we’ve created an environment where people
can actually participate in such a way that when they
come to work they make a huge difference for the
customers and have a good time while they’re doing
NFC: That had to be the way that you wanted
to work yourself?
Yokoyama: I took over the fish market in
1965 when I was 25 years old. I ran it for almost 20
years the old-fashioned way—cracking the whip and
making sure that I was watching everything and ruling the
roost so to speak. Then about 13 years ago we had a time
that we were in a lot of trouble and were almost forced
into bankruptcy. At that time there were only six of us
and we got together and decided we had to either sink or
swim. We changed our philosophy of how to do business. I
discovered we could actually enroll people to create
results versus demanding them to.
NFC: Is that when Jim got involved?
Yokoyama: Yes, that’s one of the
things Jim inspired in our company. He suggested we
change the environment. So I took a look at that and
thought that’s something we need to do. From that
point on it kept growing. It took awhile for us to get it
NFC: Something had to click. There are lots
of different ways you could try to save your business.
Why did this work so well for you?
Yokoyama: Jim suggested we create a vision.
We were sitting around and one of the kids in the meeting
said, “Let’s become world famous.” And
we looked at that and we thought, “This kid is
nuts. How are we going to become world famous?
We’re a fish market.” We looked at that and
we decided, why not? Let’s give it a shot. The six
of us committed individually to become world
NFC: How hard was it for the six of you to
change how you worked together?
Yokoyama: It was harder for me than it was
for them. It was a lot better for them because the
dictator disappeared. They actually acquired a partner.
They acquired a team member instead of a tyrant boss. It
was a pleasure for them to have the transition. It was
tough for me because I had to make a 180-degree turn in
how I ran the business. When we took that vision and
committed to it individually, one of the things that Jim
said was, “Once you create a vision you don’t
really have to know how to accomplish the vision. If you
really commit to it, the universe will align with you and
let you know what’s next.” Once we did that,
that’s exactly what’s happened for the last
NFC: Some people would say that sounds so
Yokoyama: It does. But in our experience in
the last 13 years we know this stuff really works for us
because everything that we’ve committed to has
happened. We decided we’d become world famous and
all of a sudden the first thing to happen within the
first three months was the Goodwill Games showed up and
we had cameras from all over the world visiting us.
NFC: What attracted the Goodwill Games, and
customers, at that point?
Yokoyama: Throwing the fish really
attracted a lot of people. We became performers, on stage
versus fish salesmen.
NFC: That’s sort of like the old idea
of the guy doing flapjacks in the window of the
Yokoyama: The difference was we made a
commitment to make a difference for every human being who
walked within 30 feet of the shop. Even though they
didn’t buy anything we were going to make sure that
we made their day. We wanted to make a difference for
human beings in general, whether they were customers or
not and to serve them in such a way they would leave the
shop area inspired.
NFC: Have any of the other operators at the
market taken some hints from you guys?
Yokoyama: Some of them, but most of them
are operating the old way.
NFC: You think that maybe you have to have
that pain? Maybe there has to be some trigger that
enables you to say, “Wait a minute I’ve gotta
Yokoyama: I think there is a lot of fear.
Especially owners of small businesses are afraid to trust
people, afraid to give power away. I think that’s
the biggest fear for small business owners.
NFC: Were there some sleepless nights for
you until it became clear that it was going to
Yokoyama: I was committed to it so it
wasn’t painful for me at all because in order for
it to be successful, I had to commit to it 100 percent
myself. Otherwise it wouldn’t work. It wasn’t
painful, but it was hard at times. When I saw something
go wrong, I wanted to revert to the old way and start
yelling and screaming.
NFC: Saying “all right guys this is
the way we’re going to do it...”
Yokoyama: Yeah, instead of taking somebody
aside and saying, “Hey listen, there’s been a
breakdown here, let’s have a conversation about the
NFC: Now since you have become world famous
I presume it’s also profitable?
Yokoyama: We went from six people to 21.
Our sales volume has gone up about four times what it was
10 years ago. Profits have gone up.
NFC: Are you selling over the Web?
Yokoyama: Yes, we are. That’s
something. These guys who work for me create their own
work environment. They have created the Web (site).
Everything that’s done at Pike Place Fish comes
from within. The ideas, everything that’s
happening, as far as the Web site, those are all ideas
that came from the guys who work.
NFC: How are you the boss these days? It
has to have changed how you approach the work.
Yokoyama: I show up at work maybe four to
seven hours a week. The truth is I’ve given almost
everything away. As far as responsibilities? I’ve
given it all away to everybody at the store. They take it
on like it’s their place.
NFC: Are they profiting themselves now?
Have you changed the way you pay them?
Yokoyama: We’ve got a 401k program
that we never had before. We got a bonus program now.
They set goals every month and if they meet their goals
they get a bonus out of that. They set a goal for gross
volume and they know what their food costs have to come
in at. If they meet those two goals they get around $200
a month if they hit that goal, or more.
NFC: I was saying you must have very low
turnover compared to where you were before.
Yokoyama: At times... we had a huge
turnover a few years ago. We lost about a third of our
old crew and replaced them with brand new kids. I think
now we’ve got the best crew I’ve had in some
32 years. I think when you create a vision the
appropriate things happen. People leave if they’re
not committed to the vision. They have to change and grow
NFC: I guess it’s not just that you
created the vision, but then the company keeps evolving.
The vision is something you never catch up to in a sense.
Perhaps a good number of people bought into it initially
thinking this is what it’s going to be, but as
things evolved, they felt “this is more than what I
figured on and I want more predictability.”
Yokoyama: When I committed to the vision,
my goal was to retire in the next couple of years and buy
a place in Palm Springs. Then my son was up here. We
brainstormed and created all these possibilities. At one
meeting about three years ago, my brothers came up with,
you know we need to have “Pike Place—the
movie” show up. That’s when Chart House
International showed up about three weeks later and said,
“We’d like to make a video of you
guys.” We didn’t think too much of it, but
right now they’re the hottest selling videos on the
market today. And it’s translated into so many
different languages and sold worldwide. That’s the
source of our new area we’re moving into. Something
I had no idea would show up. That’s one of the
things that happen when you create a vision. The universe
kind of tells you this is what’s next. And when
that possibility came up I said, “No way,
we’re not gonna travel out of town. I’m not a
speaker. I’m not going to do this.”
NFC: You were a manager of a fish market.
Now you’re a teacher.
Yokoyama: Scared the heck out of me to go
to corporate Americans and start telling them how we
created the possibility of becoming world famous. Another
thing we did at one meeting, we said we needed more media
coverage. Right after that the phone started ringing off
the hook. We got all kinds of interviews.
NFC: What distinguishes you from other
Yokoyama: The secret to one of the
distinctions that we’ve gotten is that if we all
committed to the possibilities individually we have to do
it individually; we can’t do it as a group. Each
person has to take that on individually for themselves,
and then all kinds of things happen. We know that groups
can’t create. Only individuals can create. So we
have these brainstorming meetings and we all agree that
we’re going to take that on and that’s
what’s going to happen. And I’ll tell you, it
has not failed us for 12 years.
NFC: That’s great. So what do you
think is next? Have you guys created another
Yokoyama: We always create a new vision.
It’s called “World Peace, An Idea Whose Time
Has Come.” We started on that vision about a year
ago. We don’t know how we’re going to
accomplish that, but it’s something we’re
really committed to. So we’ll see what
NFC: Just take a step down and say
we’ll communicate that to a good number of more
people. If nothing else, the idea of some guys—men
and women—in a fish market who have decided
they’re going to work for world peace now.
Yokoyama: That’s pretty
NFC: It’s like when you decided you
were going to become world famous. That was pretty
outrageous. But it’s outrageous enough that
it’s going to stick in people’s minds.
Yokoyama: The thing that we’ve
discovered is about a year ago we think we fulfilled the
“world famous” vision, so we needed to move
into something else. We know one thing, if you
don’t keep expanding, the space of possibility
disappears. So we needed to create a new vision at that
time. We thought we already fulfilled the old one.
That’s still part of our routine as far as service
and everything else goes, and making a difference for
people, but we had to create something new that was a
little bit bigger to move into to keep us alive, to keep
NFC: There’s something about that
kind of a goal: Once you feel you’ve more or less
gotten to that point you’re going to want to, I
don’t know if you want to call it retire, but you
need something new to be working for, and oftentimes it
will be a larger scale.
Yokoyama: And the thing that happened out
of that was that we made a presentation to Shell Oil in
Scotland. We went over there for a four-day seminar. We
actually stayed overnight on the oil platform. That was
something that I never wanted to do. Go out of the
country! But then Jim said, “Hey listen, you said
world peace, well this is world, baby! You have to start
traveling throughout the world.” And I said,
“Oh, my God, look what’s showing up now out
of that commitment.”
NFC: Some folks find it hard to believe
that any organization that might have been described at
one time as a tyrannosaurus rex could switch.
Yokoyama: I’ve had grown men crying
because I was so ruthless and mean to them. I’ll
tell you one thing, there’s a huge difference in
production when the people are in an environment of
support. It makes a huge difference. They perform
NFC: When you were the BOSS-boss, the
adrenaline had to be pumping all the time. The adrenaline
still might be pumping, but it’s for a different
reason—you’re enjoying yourself. It’s
really different from being on edge and feeling like
you’re holding onto everything or it would just
Yokoyama: It comes from my commitment to my
boys to have a great life as well as they have that same
commitment for me; the love we have for each other makes
all the difference. I never had that before.
NFC: Plus it gives you more time for your
boys. Maybe that’s the best bonus of
January 2002 News for a