International / 13 September 2018, 07:00am / By Kurumi Mori and Komaki Ito
INTERNATIONAL - Tsuyoshi Matsushita didn’t know Cristiano Ronaldo or Madonna at all, but he somehow got in touch with them and persuaded them to be the faces of his products.
By doing so, the Japanese entrepreneur built his company into a $2.3 billion firm, making himself a billionaire in the process. It was made possible, he said, because his little-known business gambled on trying to get the superstars to endorse its brands.
“Most people wouldn’t even try to get Ronaldo or Madonna because they think it’s such a slim chance,” the president of MTG said in an interview in Tokyo. But “I’ve been thriving on that 1 percent chance since birth. And I’ve gotten lucky.”
Matsushita’s MTG Co. makes a kaleidoscope of products, including a skincare line developed with Madonna and an abdominal muscle-training device called SIXPAD in partnership with Ronaldo.
The company, which had more than $400 million in revenue last fiscal year, listed in Tokyo in July, when its shares surged 27 percent on their first day. Matsushita retains a 72 percent stake.
The 48-year-old has a long history as an entrepreneur, taking his first steps into the world of business when he was still a schoolchild on a small Japanese island. Back then -- as now -- his product line sought to create and capitalize on a fad; at that time, it was rabbits that looked like pandas.
While still in grade school, Matsushita traveled to Nagasaki, bought the Dutch rabbits, bred them and sold them to the islanders, who had never seen their like before. For a brief moment he had the perfect business, until the panda rabbits lost their scarcity value. “That’s how I got started,” he said.
Matsushita went on to establish a used-car dealership in 1994. But he soon decided he wanted to make his own products, so he founded the predecessor of MTG in 1996. There, he tried his hand at everything from health-care items to ceramics. In 2009, he had success with the ReFa massage roller, which uses microcurrents to promote blood circulation.
“He’s got heart,” Takuya Kiyokawa, who Matsushita got to pluck grass to feed his rabbits back in his childhood days and is now head of manufacturing at MTG, said of his boss. “He’s the scariest person in the world and the nicest person in the world. And above all, he’s the hardest worker.”
A few years later, Matsushita became determined to develop a skincare brand in partnership with Madonna, as the next step after the ReFa brand. Matsushita did the rounds of advertising agencies, trying to find a way to meet her. They told him it was impossible.
“I started asking those around me if they knew Madonna,” Matsushita said. “They looked at me like I was crazy. But eventually someone knew someone and after a while, we were finally able to reach her.”
MTG launched the MDNA SKIN brand with the Queen of Pop in February 2014. It came after much back and forth with the singer over the development, according to Matsushita. The skincare line, which consists of a range of products including a clay mask that can be removed by a magnetic device, is promoted as using "blessed waters" from thermal springs in Italy. MTG says it doesn’t disclose details of MDNA SKIN’s sales.
Not content to leave it there, Matsushita turned his attention to Ronaldo. He’d decided that the five-time FIFA Player of the Year was the only person that he would want to represent his ReFa Active facial beauty roller.
Once again, he contacted advertising agencies and was told a meeting was impossible. Again, he finally got in touch by using his network of contacts, and managed to convince the soccer star to represent the product. In July 2014, MTG started a collaboration with Ronaldo.
The next year, the company launched SIXPAD, a device that uses electrical muscle stimulation to tone the abdomen and other parts of the body. The machine wraps around the waist or limbs and sends electrical currents through the muscles, causing contractions and essentially working out that body part.
Again, the device was in partnership with Ronaldo, who had by then developed a relationship with the Japanese entrepreneur, according to Matsushita. Matsushita says that when Ronaldo visited Nagoya, where MTG is based, for the partnership announcement, he also attended a barbeque at his house and hosted a soccer clinic for kids from the area.
Ronaldo’s TV advertisements for SIXPAD have become well-known in Japan, and MTG has sold more than one million units of the device in the past three years, with the company’s revenue more than doubling after the product was launched.
Ronaldo and Madonna didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Matsushita contracted three researchers who specialize in EMS to verify SIXPAD’s effectiveness and stave off criticism that it’s a gimmick.
"Theoretically, muscle contraction induced by Sixpad can improve muscle mass and strength," said Kohei Watanabe, an associate professor at Chukyo University who co-authored the study.
Whatever the case, Matsushita’s stake in MTG was worth about $1.7 billion as of Tuesday, after the company listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s Mothers market for startup firms on July 10.
After initially surging, the stock has tailed off. It’s down about 20 percent from a peak on July 12. The one analyst with a rating on the stock, from Nomura Holdings Inc., says it’s a hold with a price target of 8,000 yen, up 23 percent from Tuesday’s close.
MTG’s next step is to increase the number of training gym locations featuring its SIXPAD products. A workout only takes about 15 minutes, and there’s no need to change into gym clothes or sneakers, Matsushita said. The company currently has one SIXPAD STATION in Tokyo, but it’s aiming to open 5,000 worldwide, including 500 in Japan.
Only time will tell whether that will be successful, but the man in question won’t be betting against himself.
“Year by year, we are making our company stronger,” he said.