How I Got Here: Paul Okura, owner, CMIT Solutions of Southern Westchester County

Banking exec turns IT entrepreneur with an IT services and support company

This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.

Paul Okura has successfully navigated two cultures throughout his long career in finance, moving deftly between Japan and the United States. Starting out with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from NYU, Paul didn't exactly have the traditional background to become a banker, but the presentation skills he learned while studying film and television in school contributed to his success in finance.

Bio

Name: Paul Okura

Current position: Owner, CMIT Solutions of Southern Westchester County

Hometown: Tokyo, Japan

Biggest high school achievement: Working for the Daily News

Something most people don't know about me: I was in the Japanese movie, "Shall we dance".

Ask me to do anything but . . . Filing. I don't believe in filing.

Favorite non-work pastime: Motorboating

Favorite technology: Document management systems

What I'm reading now: "Everything I know about business, I learned at McDonald's: The 7 leadership principles that drive break out success", by Paul Facella. It is a good book to read for any business owner, as it talks about leadership principles that drive breakout success. I also like it because McDonald's really understands how to build a scalable business.

Favorite quote: KISS ("Keep it simple, stupid"), which is a strategy I always use. KISS will force us to focus on the core issues.

Ideal vacation: Travel in Europe and go to Rome, Paris, and London. Those cities are very romantic and full of history.

Is there any such thing as job stability in the investment banking world any more? Was there ever? The nature of the business is that it is constantly changing and evolving -- so there is no stability, and none is expected. Nonetheless, Paul made an enjoyable career out of banking, until he decided to go in a completely different direction and purchase a CMIT franchise, launching his own company offering IT services and support. Moving from banking executive to franchise owner is a major change, but Paul has excelled at it, and now has a successful franchise, where he enjoys leveraging his expertise in so many areas to make a successful small business work.

Let's start out in your early years and high school. What did you study?

I'm originally from Tokyo, Japan. I went to Chicago when I was in the sixth grade, and my father was in banking. We spent about three and a half years, and during my freshman year of high school, my father became ill so we went back to Japan. My father passed away and I decided to finish my schooling in the States, so I went to New York to finish high school at Fordham Prep, which is a Jesuit run school. I graduated from Fordham Prep.

What was Fordham like?

The experience was phenomenal. Jesuits are very strict educators. It was great, because Fordham Prep is part of Fordham University, so we were inside the university campus. Fortunately, I was in the Honors program, so I finished my senior year during my junior year, and they allowed me to take classes at Fordham University. I didn't have a typical high school experience since I was taking classes at Fordham University while I was in high school. They also allowed me to work at the New York Daily News and at the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, and that was part of my senior credit.

Sounds like high school was a pretty busy time. What did you do next?

Yes. I went to New York University in Manhattan, which was also very exciting and educational. NYU is a high caliber school academically, but the campus was in Greenwich Village.

That makes it even more interesting.

That made it really interesting, and I got exposed to different cultures. During my freshman year I had gone to Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, then transferred to NYU. Illinois Institute of Technology was a very small school, and very academic and very strict and regimented. Then NYU had more than 40,000 students, and was very diverse inside the school and outside the school. I think that helps build character when you're exposed to different cultures, and you see that there is more than one correct answer. Then I went into my banking career, and the bank paid for my MBA, so I also have an MBA from NYU.

Any good college stories?

I knew that I was going into banking because my father was in banking. But at NYU, my major was film and television. I knew that I was going to go for graduate school, so I didn't want to study business at both levels, so I studied film and television. I was probably the only film and television major wearing a three-piece suit with a briefcase. Getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts was very helpful in banking, because having an art background gives you an edge in presentation skills, which many people in banking are not necessarily strong at. So I was able to be very creative in making proposals and attacking issues. I was able to think creatively and outside of the box. I credit that to my background studying film and television. Studying film and television at NYU—Martin Scorsese is a graduate of NYU film school—helped immensely in business, because art teaches you to be flexible, to look at things from different angles, improves your presentation skills and communication skills.

So you came to the US in the sixth grade, what was that like?

Yes, when I was 11 and I didn't speak a word of English. The transition was a major one, because the way things are taught in Japan and the US are totally opposite. In Japan, culturally they stress the importance of belonging to a group, because natural resources are limited in Japan, so you can't be selfish. From early on, they teach you the value of thinking as a group. You do everything for the benefit of the group. There's a proverb that you might have heard: "The nail that sticks out, gets hammered in." Then, I came to the US, and the school system taught us to be independent, you have to be unique. And I'd say, "wait a minute, I was told the opposite!" So that was a major hurdle, but I think there is good value in both. Japan has to stress the group mentality because of limited resources, and the cultural background is very homogeneous. In the US, being independent and unique is very important, because you have diverse culture and plenty of resources.

What was your first job right out of college?

When I graduated from college, I was in the management training program at the bank and that was in San Francisco. My job was to visit all the different branches in Northern California, to be involved with retail banking. Then when I was visiting New York, I visited the New York office of Bank of Tokyo, which owned California First Bank. And they asked me to move to New York to be involved with wholesale banking. So, I moved to New York and became involved with national banking, handling Fortune 500 companies, and I went from retail banking to the wholesale banking environment. When I was doing that, they asked me to go to Japan to the parent bank as an expatriate trip. It was the first expatriate trip from New York to Japan, and while I was in Japan, the parent bank asked me to become home staff. So I became home staff at Bank of Tokyo, and then was sent back from Japan to New York as an expatriate officer from Japan, and ever since I've been going back and forth between New York and Tokyo, mainly engaged in international banking. At the bank, I was involved in everything you can think of, like capital markets, security business, foreign exchange. I have done pretty much everything. When I was at Bank of Tokyo, I was involved with the banking association called the Bankers Association for Finance and Trade, and I was a board member and got to know a lot of the US banks. So I was approached by Mellon Financial Corporation to grow their business in Asia, then Mellon merged with Bank of New York and it became Bank of New York Mellon. I was Senior VP and Division Head for Asia Pacific Division on Wall Street.

What would you say is the biggest difference between doing business in the US and doing business in Japan?

The biggest difference is that in Japan, it tends to be company-to-company relationships, where in the US, the personal relationship is very important. American companies tend to be more open to more proposals and new ideas, because you don't necessarily have to have the institutional relationship to do that. If you go to an American company with very creative and worthwhile proposals, they may accept that. Even if your company does not have a long term relationship, they may value your idea. In Japan it's more challenging to go with a new idea lacking that kind of institutional relationship. That's one of the key differences.

You must be very fluent in different business cultures, not only between Tokyo and the US, but between New York and San Francisco. There's a huge difference in business cultures just between East and West Coast. Is becoming familiar with those different cultures a very important thing in achieving a path to success?

I think coming from a banking background, and also living in different locations and going through different business experiences, gives me the ability to be flexible and advise clients with more valuable advice, because I've gone through different situations in my life.

So when did information technology come into the picture for you?

When I was at Bank of New York Mellon, even though it is a bank, a lot of what we did involved technology. For example, Mellon was strong in cash management. Mellon was actually selling its cash management system to other banks on a white label basis. Most individuals don't know that it's actually Mellon's system that other banks are using, because they're labeled under the bank they're dealing with. Most people when they think of banks, they think of placing deposits and making loans, but at the institutional level, banks are heavy users of technology. They have a lot of technology built into their products. There is a lot of programming developed by the bank, and then after September 11, the notion of data backup and business disaster recovery was directly affecting the bank. I had personal experience in making sure the back-up and disaster recovery were in top shape. The banking industry itself is at the forefront of that technology, because of what they went through after the terrorist attack. You find that many other industries are behind the curve in terms of data backup and disaster recovery, and hopefully, they will catch up with the banking industry.

Sure, banking and finance has always been out in front there at the leading edge of technology, especially investment banking and trading.

Right, because they can't afford to have their computers down. Investment banks have spent billions of dollars in technology. What I like about my job now, is that I'm delivering those enterprise level technology services to small and medium sized companies, which is very unique and I enjoy doing that.

So after the financial crisis hit the banking industry last year, you decided the pressure wasn't worth all you had to sacrifice, and that the environment no longer offered a guarantee. Is there really any such thing as job security?

I truly love banking, and it was a great career. But merger is something we can't control. During my career, I went through three mergers, and every time there's a merger, the culture of the institution changes. Hopefully, every time is for the better. But every time the merger takes place, there's going to be a lot of stress. I wanted to do something different and establish my own company, so that's why I changed my career. I don't think there's any such thing as job stability in banking per se, because it is constantly changing, and you need to be able to adapt to those changes. But that's the nature of business. It's going to constantly evolve.

Let's talk about the transition from banking to being an entrepreneur in the IT space. That's a big transition, what's the biggest difference you see in those two paths?

Working for major international banks, there is a support infrastructure available, particularly since I was in senior management. You have every resource available to you. When you're an entrepreneur, you have to develop all those infrastructures yourself. I decided I did not want to do that from scratch, so I spoke with a company called FranNet. FranNet is a company that will introduce you to various franchise opportunities. I took that route because more than 90 percent of companies that start up, will fail.

And so is there a much better success rate with franchises?

There is much better success with a franchise business, because you're buying a proven system. You do have to pay up front to acquire the franchise right, and you have to pay a monthly royalty payment. But, you are getting into a situation where you have a certain infrastructure in place. FranNet introduced me to CMIT Solutions. Having gone through the franchise route, I reduced the risk of starting my own company. So yes, it is an entrepreneurial business, but there's a certain infrastructure that's available from day one, and I reduced that risk.

What were the steps you had to take to get the business up and running?

CMI Solutions conducted a two-week training at the home office in Austin, Texas where they provide a lot of information to get you up and running. They have a manual and operating procedure, which guides you to set up your location operation, so that is a major help in shortening the process of getting your business up and running.

How long did the process take from the time you first opened up the brochure about CMIT, and the time you were able to open your doors?

I would say less than two months.

Would you say that there is more security in working for yourself than in working for another company?

I would put it a different way. I would say that you have more control over your destiny being an entrepreneur. It doesn't mean you have more job security. If your work does not go well, obviously you're going to go bankrupt. It doesn't necessarily mean that your job will always be secure. I would just say that you have better control over your destiny. If you're successful and you have good ideas, you have total control over that. If you're working for a company, no matter how good you are, no matter how great your staff is, if a merger takes place, you really can't control that. That's not up to you.

What's next for you in your career path?

My strategy is to build a scalable business, so I want to grow my business to a bigger size. I have a small son, so I'd like to continue to build my IT service business so when he gets older, he will have the option to take over the business.

Is there a lot of growth opportunity there?

Since I started this business and started visiting business owners in my area, I have not met a company without an IT issue. There's no such thing. And particularly with small and medium sized businesses, they are far behind in technology. Coming from a banking background where we spent billions of dollars on upgrades and technology I can see that they haven’t yet grasped the importance of technology for improving efficiency. They just don't know how much it can help. So we have a lot of work to do to educate them. They do not understand that by making it more efficient, they are actually going to save money and they will be able to make more revenue. They think that spending money on technology is a cost but in reality it allows them to make more money.

Do you ever think you would go back into banking?

If there is another opportunity, I may think about it. But I am currently enjoying a lot of opportunities in the IT business. What I am doing is utilizing my knowledge and experience that I gained through banking, and sharing it with business owners. I really enjoy doing that. A lot of IT people only know IT, they don't know business. I use my technicians to do the technical stuff, but I'm able to educate companies and business owners from the business side.

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