Core values have served Japan's Asics Corporation well down the years, and are continuing to do so at a time when the world is trying to come to grips with the worst global economic crisis in living memory, as company president Motoi Oyama tells just-style.

A sporting equipment company that has been carefully constructed on the vision and beliefs of one man, the late Kihachiro Onitsuka, the Kobe-based firm is today riding out the economic storm quite comfortably and watching the problems that are engulfing other companies in the sector.

According to its president Motoi Oyama, it might have been very different.

"As we can see in the markets, Nike, Adidas, Puma and many of the other big names expanded their businesses into the area of fashion and street-wear and away from the purely athletic, but it is exactly these areas that have been most sharply hit by the impact of the economic crisis," said 58-year-old Mr Oyama.

"All those companies have announced reduced sales figures for that area of their operations, but we have not been exposed to that risk," he said, while admitting there had previously been a strong temptation to branch out in that direction and to try to tap into the market at the point where sports clothing meets fashion.

But the company never took that leap, focusing instead on the one product that has been the icon of its line-up.

"In the last five or six years, we have expanded our Onitsuka Tiger line of footwear because it has a good image, both at home and overseas, and we have not seen any decline in sales there either," said Mr Oyama.

Shoe inspiration
The shoes that put Asics on the map were famously devised by Mr Onitsuka one hot summer evening in 1951 as he was enjoying a salad of cucumber and cold octopus.

It occurred to him that if the concave shape of the octopus' suckers could be replicated on the soles of shoes then he would have footwear that would give unrivalled grip on a basketball court.

That flash of inspiration led to the shoe that was worn by the Japanese Olympic basketball team in 1956 and millions of kids taking part in gym class. And then it became a fashion item, complete with the stripes that make up the Asics logo down the sides.

"Since November of last year, I've watched the television news and read the papers and heard all about the economic crisis that we're facing, particularly in the car and electronics industries, but when I look at our sales around the world, it looks absolutely clear to me that we're going to be fine," said Mr Oyama.

For the fiscal year to 31 March, Asics reported global consolidated sales of JPY241bn (US$2.5bn), a rise of 7% on the previous year's JPY226bn, and an operating income of JPY226bn (US$236m). Operating margin rate was 9.35%.

The best performance was in Europe, where the operating rate stood at 15.2%, although the figures for Japan, at 6.58%, and the United States, with 6.15%, were also solid.

Fluctuating exchange rates
The biggest headache the company has to deal with is the wildly fluctuating exchange rates - the US dollar has lost fully 25% of its value against the yen since the crash - and Mr Oyama knows that nothing can be taken for granted in his line of business.

"This year, we will be cautious on our operations," he said. "We have to be prepared for more sudden changes in the economy and make sure, for example, that we have financial commitments from banks."

The company's domestic sales figures for the first couple of months of the new fiscal year are "up and down," said Mr Oyama, but he sees the present as a time of opportunity.

Asics is looking to encourage struggling department stores to give prominence to its products in their promotional efforts, as well as snapping up domestic television advertising spots, the cost of which has been halved in the last six months.

As an official sponsor of the Tokyo marathon, the company will boost its profile as a key name on display at the World Track and Field Championships in Berlin later this year.

Global golf market
Asics, traditionally providing footwear and clothing for runners, tennis and soccer players, will also be looking to seize a greater share of the global market for golf shoes.

The success of Shingo 'Cowboy' Katayama at the 2009 USA Masters tournament, where he finished fourth, equalling the best performance ever by a Japanese player, has given new impetus to the company in that sector.

The company opened its first European store outside Japan in London in October last year, and is planning further expansion in the near future, although declined to provide specific dates or locations.

According to Mr Oyama, the secret behind the company's success is straightforward.
"We have a good reputation for good products that are made for real athletes," he said.

"Quality is our number one priority and we have a history and know-how going back 60 years. We work hard to protect our reputation and to bring new and innovative products to market."

By Julian Ryall.