By Patrick Avenell
Born into poverty in 1893, Tokuji Hayakawa was a boy who liked tinkering. Although forced to drop out of school as a child, Hayakawa’s lack of formal education would not stop this inventive young man from achieving greatness.
For a boy who likes tinkering, the ideal place to grow this hobby into an empire is in the home of a metal worker. It was here that Hayakawa spent his youth, learning under the eye of his sensei, Sato-sama.
While working away in the basement of Sato-Sama's home, Hayakawa, at age 19, made his first breakthrough. Irritated at the number of men in Japan wearing loosely fitted clothing, Hayakawa designed and manufactured the Tokubijo belt buckle, the first buckle that can be fastened without holes.
That same year — 1912 — Hayakawa opened his first manufacturing plant, in a house in Tokyo. His first products were the belt buckle, umbrella ferrules and an adjustable flow faucet. Working under the mantra “to make products other companies want to imitate”, Hayakawa toiled for three years in this house before inventing the product that would give Sharp its name.
As was the case with his belt buckle, Hayakawa was inspired to make a better product primarily by frustration. He had been using metal pencils to write and draw, though he considered them to be “aesthetically unappealing and too fragile for everyday use”, according to the official history, so he developed a thrusting device and inserted it into the metallic shaft of the pencil.
It was released to the market as the ‘Hayakawa Mechanical Pencil’ and it was an instant success. So popular was the pencil, which was soon renamed as the ‘Ever-Sharp Pencil’, Hayakawa began exporting it to Europe and North America, a very rare achievement for a pre-modern Japanese company.
Since then, The Sharp Corporation, as the company became known in 1970, has been responsible for a number of major innovations, with many focused on the LCD technology that Sharp pioneered.
This year, Sharp subsidiaries around the world are commemorating the 100th anniversary of Hayakawa’s first invention.
“In a century of business, Sharp has been responsible for over 50 first-to-market products, including firsts in refrigeration, calculators, stereo systems, fax machines, projectors and LCD TV,” said a spokesperson.
Those firsts found their way into Australian homes via the Sharp Corporation of Australia, which was established in 1971.
Leading the celebrations at Huntingwood, in western Sydney, is the managing director of Sharp’s Australian business, Masashi (Mike) Uchiyama.
“Our first-to-market one-of-a-kind products are at the core of Sharp’s longevity,” Uchiyama said. “People trust the Sharp brand as it associates it with sincerity and creed, which are two very important factors when selecting electronics for your home or office.
“Sharp has established itself very well in the market and its longevity is a positive to its consumers. To know that it has been in the market for 100 years is very important these days, as many competitors enter the market and then disappear.”
Maintaining momentum and profitability over 100 years in certainly a challenge, and one that Sharp is currently tackling. Over the last decade, Sharp has had fluctuating fortunes. Uchiyama said the experience in overcoming previous economic downturns will prove beneficial in the long run.
“All companies have experienced a turbulent last 10 years, mainly because of the extremely fast change of business circumstances, including, but not limited to, the Global Financial Crisis, infrastructure innovations, natural disasters around the world and the fast growth of emerging countries,” he said.
“As long as business circumstances keep changing, Sharp also needs to keep changing. In the last 100 years, challenges of similar or greater magnitude have been faced by our company and we have overcome them.”
To mark its 100th anniversary, Sharp is releasing a new range of ‘spectacularge’ LCD TVs. Featuring both 3D and Sharp’s own Quattron technology for more vivid colours, the new range of high-end, really big screen TVs will break records for consumer TV sizes.
“Sharp introduced the 70-inch 3D Quattron LCD TV early this year, and coupled with the soon to be released 80-inch model and the highly anticipated release of the 90-inch LCD TV later this year, Sharp is gaining great momentum in large screen LCD TVs,” said marketing manager Mark Beard.
In a market that has been driven to commoditisation by volume-obsessed suppliers, Sharp is one of the few vendors refusing to play the price game, claimed Uchiyama.
“We do not seek merely to expand our business volume,” he said. “Rather, we are dedicated to the use of our unique, innovative technology to contribute to the culture, benefits, and welfare of people throughout the world.
“This philosophy applies not only to product development but also to all of our business activities in our 100-year history, and has been embedded in the minds of all employees through their activities.”
The first Sharp-branded product: the Ever-Sharp Pencil.
And brand new to Sharp's range is this 90-inch TV, being showcased at IFA by European VP Alberico Lissoni.
A version of this article first appeared in Appliance Retailer magazine.