Kit Miyamoto, president and CEO of Miyamoto International and Global Risk Miyamoto, has never been one to fit a mold. He’s very much his own person – truly one of a kind. Miyamoto proved that when, at 18, he left his home and family in Tokyo to pursue his dream – playing football for the Dallas Cowboys.
First he had to learn the language and the culture. Although Miyamoto read English, he did not speak it. So, under a college program, young Miyamoto lived with a family in rural Kansas during the summer of 1981, immersing himself in the language and the Midwestern American culture. The jocular Miyamoto recalled that time.
“It was a wonderful experience. I didn’t feel any discrimination,” said the 48-year-old structural engineer. After a brief pause and his characteristic laugh he continued. “I think I was the only Japanese person in the whole state of Kansas.”
American introduction complete, Miyamoto enrolled in California State University in Chico – an undergraduate academic career that ultimately lasted seven-and-a-half years; four of those with an undeclared major. Chico State was No. 1 in football and also No. 1 party school, he added laughingly. That may have contributed to Miyamoto’s lengthy undergrad experience.
All along he tried to pursue his football dream, playing for the Chico State Wildcats as a running back. That dream came to an end after a knee injury. The world lost a potential football star, but gained a future engineering superstar.
But during that time he met his future wife, Chantal, a French-Canadian. She was a freshman at the dorm where Miyamoto was a resident assistant. “The best part of my job as RA was meeting the incoming freshmen girls and introducing them to campus life, plus I got free room and board.” Switching to more serious tone, Miyamoto said his experience as an RA, which included keeping students under his watch, was where he first learned the value of leadership and teamwork.
Football career thwarted, Miyamoto went on to pursue a master of science in civil engineering from California State in Sacramento, and recently he obtained a doctorate of engineering from Tokyo Institute of Technology. In 1990 Miyamoto joined Marr Shaffer Structural Engineers. John Shaffer, owner and CEO, mentored Miyamoto and guided his budding career. In 1997, Shaffer decided it was time to retire and offered to sell Miyamoto the company and even finance the purchase. Miyamoto took him up on the offer, the company took off, and it wasn’t long before Miyamoto was able to pay back the debt.
“So, actually, I have never changed jobs. The company just changed around me,” Miyamoto said.
Fast forward 14 years and Miyamoto International and Global Risk Miyamoto have 12 offices around the globe, including Istanbul, Tokyo, Haiti and Christchurch, New Zealand. Miyamoto International is a premier structural engineering company when it comes to earthquake engineering, disaster mitigation, risk management, reconstruction, and disaster response. Miyamoto works with both the public and private sectors and his firm has a good working relationship with the World Bank and the United Nations.
Miyamoto’s success with governmental entities hasn’t happened by chance. Miyamoto passionately believes when doing business internationally you first have to know the people and their culture – how they live. He calls himself a “cultural anthropologist.”
“You need to put yourself in their shoes first – eat with them, live with them. See how a building works in context,” he said. “Then you can determine what needs to be done and, in turn, they are more receptive.” He went on to explain that too often companies have a “making money” mentality and quickly begin telling people abroad what they should do. He stressed, “You have to show respect for the richest and the poorest. Then I’ve found they are receptive to our ideas.”
The mission statement of Miyamoto International is simple: Make the world a better place. It’s a mission that Miyamoto not only believes in but lives. It not only pertains to the company’s work but also the workplace and his 100-plus employees. With Miyamoto’s clever sense of humor, it’s no wonder company information also includes the statement, “Every day we are committed to having fun.”
Miyamoto’s management style is rather unique. Miyamoto scoffs at employee manuals, employment grades, and other such “‘management” direction. That happens mainly because he believes in leadership and teamwork, rather than management. “Everyone is different and we should treat them as individuals. Great leaders are team players and that’s not learned from the classroom.” He has been quoted as describing his company as a “bottom-up organization” where everyone works together and also shares in the profits and success. “The staff serves the clients and the leaders serve the staff,” he said.
Miyamoto’s inimitable style obviously works. The company has grown 48% since 2009, during the worst economic climate the world has seen in decades.
One of the draws of working for Miyamoto is not only pay and benefits, but the allure of adventure and sharing the passion of making the world a better place. Miyamoto compares it to being in the Peace Corps. “It’s very similar. We work with a country’s engineers to help them make their country better. The only difference is we do it in a high-tech way,” he said. Miyamoto says that during the typical workweek he may be dressed in a suit to meet with businessmen in Cleveland one day and the next day he may be in Haiti meeting with some of the poorest people in the world – but all with the purpose of making the world a better place. Miyamoto credits the company’s success in part to large clients liking the humanitarian work they do – liking the company’s values.
Miyamoto has over 10,000 projects to his credit – including retrofitting the Theme Building of LAX, mitigating 2,000 schools, hospitals, public and historic buildings in Istanbul, and evaluating thousands of buildings in Haiti. In his passion to help the world, he has been called upon over the last three years to help with structural engineering needs after major earthquakes in China, Christchurch, New Zealand, Haiti and Japan. Working with the Pan American Development Foundation in conjunction with the World Bank, Miyamoto International worked on earthquake assessment and reconstruction in these disaster areas, including offering earthquake expertise in Haiti. He said he has not encountered any problems with the Haitian government and has found Haitian engineers eager to learn and appreciative of the help. This is an ongoing project and the impetus for Miyamoto forming a non-profit called Miyamoto Disaster Relief, which provides immediate and long-term support for all major disasters.
Sometimes it seems that fate seeks Miyamoto’s expertise and willingness to help those in need.
Last March, Miyamoto, Chantal, and their three children, Mimi, Julia and Alexander, were vacationing in Tokyo, where ironically Miyamoto was giving a presentation on earthquake engineering at his alma mater, Tokyo Institute of Technology. On their way to the Ikebukuro station the train they were riding came to an abrupt halt.
“I knew Tokyo has a policy that in the event of an earthquake their transit system shuts down for the safety of the passengers,” he said. “My first thought was ‘This is no good’.”
That proved to be an understatement. After a lengthy walk in the freezing cold, the Miyamoto family made it to safety. They departed the next morning for home and Miyamoto went to work surveying the damage of the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and the deadly tsunami that followed. It was a personal journey for Miyamoto as he walked amidst the debris and destruction of places he recalled from childhood. At the same time he was able to see how well earthquake mitigation and design had helped the buildings that had withstood the devastation of the tsunami.
In the days that followed, Miyamoto was contacted by the international media to share his story and give his expert opinions. This was followed by numerous speaking engagements at conferences all over the world.
Miyamoto relishes the opportunity to remind people of the importance of preparation for earthquakes. “Earthquake risk mitigation can save lives and save buildings on both new and existing structures… And if done during construction the costs run only about 5 percent more,” he said. “People should have options. They should know the risks and the mitigation costs. Unfortunately, there are investors out there who are only looking at a profit when they build a high rise and not necessarily the safety of the people.” Miyamoto uses the media whenever he can to drive this point home. Besides California, there are other parts of the country that are vulnerable to a major earthquake and in his opinion are totally unprepared. “Unfortunately, it takes the loss of thousands of lives before people take risk mitigation seriously.”
One of Miyamoto’s inimitable management philosophies is that a CEO has no need for an office. His feelings are the CEO should be out visiting with his staff in the other offices. He said he’s only in the office about one day a month. Jokingly, he said he expects at any time to find his desk moved to a closet. Miyamoto has flown more miles than most pilots, piling up a ridiculous amount of frequent flyer miles. But regardless of his hectic schedule he tries to be home in Sacramento every weekend to spend time with his family. “It’s a far commute from Istanbul or Tokyo but I do it as much as possible,” he said.
Nevertheless, Miyamoto carries his mission to his family and community.
For example, after he returned from Haiti he spoke to each of his children’s classes, giving them his firsthand account of what he had seen and experienced. The talk moved his children’s classmates and they raised $1,000, which Miyamoto arranged to give to a Haitian school. “My kids see my work more as a mission than making money – which is good,” he said.
Myamoto’s love of family is a sentiment also reflected in the office. Once a year he arranges for all of his staff and their families to get together. Last year they gathered at Yosemite National Park for a weekend of camping and hiking. “It was so fun,” he said. “Seeing the reaction of the guy from Istanbul when he saw the scenery was priceless. Sharing culture and history, whether it’s our staff’s or our clients’, we realize if you look inside of a person they are all the same.”
While still fairly young, Miyamoto has garnered more awards and accolades than most people receive in a lifetime. He’s as comfortable with children in a Haitian orphanage as he is in the boardroom of a Fortune 500 company or giving an interview for CNN. His engineering talent, his sense of humor, his affable personality, and his concern for humanity are truly making this world a better place… and more fun, too.
Q & A with Kit Miyamoto
1. What do you do to de-stress?
2. Who has been your mentor?
3. What made you want to be a structural engineer?
4. Advice to young engineers?
Susan Wallace is a freelance writer and co-owner of Vantage Point Communications living in Fayeteville, Ark. She can be contacted at email@example.com.