When Fish Fly
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Mercer Island Reporter  

September 16, 2004

Flying fish - Islander shares personal strategies for developing a successful business

by DeAnn Rossetti
Mercer Island Reporter

John Yokoyama, Islander and owner of the famed Pike Place Fish Market, used to be what he calls a ``tyrant boss.'' He yelled at his employees and got angry with them regularly. His business floundered. On the verge of bankruptcy, he hired consultant Jim Berquist, who found a way to turn Yokoyama's business, and his life, into a success story.

``He suggested that we create a vision for ourselves in the future, commit to that vision, and live in the present with that commitment,'' said Yokoyama. ``That was the key for us.''

``We had to transform who we were as human beings -- especially me,'' he added. ``I had to go from tyrant boss to someone who loves, trusts and empowers his employees. That's the opposite of how I was used to running my business.''

Yokoyama said that within three years of transforming himself and his company, the Pike Place Fish Market was solvent -- and becoming famous in newspapers, on television and in the movies. Yokoyama has penned a book about his successful business philosophy called ``When Fish Fly: Lessons for Creating a Vital and Energized Workplace.''

Yokoyama, a Seattle native, started working at his father's produce stand at Pike Place Market when he was eight years old.

``My father yelled a lot -- that's how he got things done,'' said Yokoyama.

After graduating from high school, he worked in the produce department of the Rainier Avenue Thriftway, then at Rosella's Fruit and Produce. In 1958, he began working at the Pike Place Fish Market, and, after returning from a six-month stint in the Coast Guard Reserve, he went back to working there. Three years later, in 1965 owner Bill Constantine, who had inherited the business from his father, offered to sell it to Yokoyama.

``He didn't like the business and really wanted out, but no one would buy it from him,'' said Yokoyama. ``He tried to sell it for $10,000 for four years, and finally offered it to me for $3,500; $350 down and $350 a month, because that was all I had.''

So Yokoyama became a business owner at 25, and was in competition with five other fish markets at Pike Place, knowing that his market was third in volume of sales, which wasn't good.

``At first, I ran it the only way I knew, by yelling and screaming at employees, like my father did,'' he said. ``Then I almost went into bankruptcy and I had to sell everything I owned to get out of a $300,000 hole.''

By 1990, Yokoyama wasn't financially able to hire any new employees, but was unable to resist the offer of business consultant Jim Berquist.

``He proposed that I hire him to create a new philosophy for Pike Place Fish, and he wanted $2,000 a month,'' said Yokoyama. ``Then he said that if he didn't earn us (the fish market) his wages within a year or so, we could fire him. He's still with us today.''

Berquist and Yokoyama brainstormed with all the employees to see what they thought the company should do.

``One guy said: `Let's be world famous!' and we thought he was crazy,'' said Yokoyama. ``But then we said, `Why not go for it?' so we started writing `world famous' on all our bags and boxes. In order to create the possibility of success, you have to work from the future to the present.''

Yokoyama said he started making a 180-degree turn from being a yeller and a screamer to being a listener.

``It was tough, and took me a year to transform from who I was as a human being,'' he said. ``It was a process for the whole business and employees, because you can't force people to change; it's up to them. We noticed that the people who didn't commit to our vision left on their own.''

The Goodwill Games brought some initial attention to the Pike Place Market, and not long after, John Christensen, an educational business filmmaker asked if he could use the Pike Place Fish Market in a motivational film.

``He filmed us for five days, did interviews and came back a month-and-a half later to show us the video,'' said Yokoyama. ``When he said he'd sell the 17-minute video for $599, we couldn't believe it, but that video, `Fish!' has become the hottest-selling educational video on the market; it has been translated into 12 languages and has made him a multi-millionaire.''

The video thrust the Pike Place Fish Market into the spotlight. Since then the fish market has appeared on TV shows like ``Frasier'' and ``Good Morning America,'' and the movie ``Free Willy.'' His employees have appeared on MTV's ``The Real World, Seattle.''

The idea of flinging the fish to the back counter came to Yokoyama 20 years ago when a lady asked him for a pound of clams.

``It took 25 steps to go out from behind the counter to the front and pick up the clams and weigh them, so I threw the sack to the guy at the scales to save myself 25 steps,'' Yokoyama said with a laugh. ``From clams, it grew to throwing anything without a big, sharp spine on its back.''

Yokoyama, 64, moved to Mercer Island with his wife and daughter in 1979.

``I play golf in Bellevue, so it's between my golf course and my business in Seattle, which is convenient,'' he said.

Yokoyama has gotten used to giving speeches and being interviewed for print and broadcast news. When he was sharing his story with Joseph Michelli, a radio broadcaster in Colorado in 2002, Michelli suggested they collaborate on an inspirational business book.

``I'm not a writer,'' said Yokoyama. ``Michelli would come up every few weeks and interview me and write it up, and we got it done in a year. Then we called John Christensen, who'd had a book published with Hyperion. He got us in the door.''

``When Fish Fly'' has been out for nearly a month, and already Yokoyama has been on KOMO TV and ``Serious Money,'' a show on PBS.

``We had to have a new vision two years ago, since we'd already become famous,'' said Yokoyama. ``So we created a new vision of world peace as an idea whose time has come. We aren't sure how to do it, just like before, but we're starting with ourselves, our friends and our families, so we'll do it one person at a time.''

Yokoyama, who said the best thing about empowering his employees is that he gets to play golf four days a week, said he doesn't think another book is in the offing.

``I don't know what the future will bring; I was going to retire next year, but that's not going to happen,'' he said. ``The future has other plans for me.''

Copyright 2004 Horvitz Newspapers, Inc.