Money Really Can Grow on Trees
Japan's Irodori built a multimillion-dollar business selling what its elderly workforce finds in the woods.
By Mariko Mikami

(Business 2.0) – Sixty-year-old Haruko Takao enjoys walking in the woods and collecting leaves. But unlike most nature lovers, Takao prints a list of orders from her PC before heading out in the morning, and when she gets home she sells her take for as much as $10,000 a month. "It's healthy to be outside," she says. "Plus, the money's not bad."

Takao is a contract worker for Irodori, a Japanese company that last year sold $2.5 million worth of stuff that literally grows on trees: leaves, branches, and twigs found near its headquarters in Kamikatsu-cho, a small village on Japan's Shikoku island. Talk about cheap crops. In 1986 founder Tomoji Yokoishi, formerly a management instructor in Kamikatsu-cho's farm cooperative, came up with the idea while dining at a restaurant in Osaka, where he noticed chefs decorating sushi with small leaves. "I thought, 'We have a lot of those where I'm from,'" he says.

Still, it took 12 years to get the business off the ground. For one thing, Yokoishi's farmer friends were less than enthusiastic. "Farmers take pride in working hard to grow what they sell," Yokoishi says. "Harvesting stuff that's just lying around the woods was too wussy for them." Initially, sales were a challenge too. Yokoishi brought what he thought were nice-looking leaves to hotels and restaurants, but few were interested. "I didn't know anything about marketing," he says.

To educate himself about his customers' needs, Yokoishi made regular visits to a nearby traditional restaurant, where he studied the decorations. After 18 months, word of a customer asking lots of questions about leaves reached the chef, who began lecturing Yokoishi about what makes a good leaf (no insect bites or color blotches), what sizes to cut branches and twigs, and how to pair leaves with special occasions (daphniphyllum for New Year's; nandina, which brings good luck, for celebrations). By the time Yokoishi incorporated Irodori in 1998, orders were piling up.

On the supply side, Yokoishi bypassed the grumpy farmers and tapped another underappreciated resource. Forty-five percent of Kamikatsu-cho's 2,200 residents are senior citizens, and Yokoishi found that many were happy to work. About 180 part-timers--whose average age is 68--check orders on Irodori's intranet using PCs on loan from the company and receive up to 85 percent commission on those that are filled. (The first person to fill an order gets the commission, so collectors carry cell phones in the woods to check what's outstanding.) Yokoishi also rewards innovation: New products are named after inventors, who get first dibs on filling orders for them. So far, a leafy chopstick holder and a tray ornament made from pine needles have been popular. (An arrangement called Teruko was conceived by a woman who has since passed away, so everyone makes Terukos now.)

Today Irodori sells through 35 wholesale markets in Japan, and Yokoishi estimates that his company supplies 70 percent of the leaf decorations purchased by Japan's hotels and restaurants. (Some chefs still insist on picking their own.) Yokoishi is most proud, though, of what the business has done for his workers. His top earner scored $20,500 in commissions in December, and an 84-year-old woman made enough money to buy an apartment for her grandson in Yokohama. "She just hopped on a plane and picked one out for him," Yokoishi says. -- MARIKO MIKAMI