Flying fish - Islander shares personal
strategies for developing a successful business
by DeAnn Rossetti
Mercer Island Reporter
John Yokoyama, Islander and owner of the
famed Pike Place Fish Market, used to be what he
calls a ``tyrant boss.'' He yelled at his
employees and got angry with them regularly. His
business floundered. On the verge of bankruptcy,
he hired consultant Jim Berquist, who found a
way to turn Yokoyama's business, and his life,
into a success story.
``He suggested that we create a vision for
ourselves in the future, commit to that vision,
and live in the present with that commitment,''
said Yokoyama. ``That was the key for us.''
``We had to transform who we were as human
beings -- especially me,'' he added. ``I had to
go from tyrant boss to someone who loves, trusts
and empowers his employees. That's the opposite
of how I was used to running my business.''
Yokoyama said that within three years of
transforming himself and his company, the Pike
Place Fish Market was solvent -- and becoming
famous in newspapers, on television and in the
movies. Yokoyama has penned a book about his
successful business philosophy called ``When
Fish Fly: Lessons for Creating a Vital and
Yokoyama, a Seattle native, started working
at his father's produce stand at Pike Place
Market when he was eight years old.
``My father yelled a lot -- that's how he got
things done,'' said Yokoyama.
After graduating from high school, he worked
in the produce department of the Rainier Avenue
Thriftway, then at Rosella's Fruit and Produce.
In 1958, he began working at the Pike Place Fish
Market, and, after returning from a six-month
stint in the Coast Guard Reserve, he went back
to working there. Three years later, in 1965
owner Bill Constantine, who had inherited the
business from his father, offered to sell it to
``He didn't like the business and really
wanted out, but no one would buy it from him,''
said Yokoyama. ``He tried to sell it for $10,000
for four years, and finally offered it to me for
$3,500; $350 down and $350 a month, because that
was all I had.''
So Yokoyama became a business owner at 25,
and was in competition with five other fish
markets at Pike Place, knowing that his market
was third in volume of sales, which wasn't good.
``At first, I ran it the only way I knew, by
yelling and screaming at employees, like my
father did,'' he said. ``Then I almost went into
bankruptcy and I had to sell everything I owned
to get out of a $300,000 hole.''
By 1990, Yokoyama wasn't financially able to
hire any new employees, but was unable to resist
the offer of business consultant Jim Berquist.
``He proposed that I hire him to create a new
philosophy for Pike Place Fish, and he wanted
$2,000 a month,'' said Yokoyama. ``Then he said
that if he didn't earn us (the fish market) his
wages within a year or so, we could fire him.
He's still with us today.''
Berquist and Yokoyama brainstormed with all
the employees to see what they thought the
company should do.
``One guy said: `Let's be world famous!' and
we thought he was crazy,'' said Yokoyama. ``But
then we said, `Why not go for it?' so we started
writing `world famous' on all our bags and
boxes. In order to create the possibility of
success, you have to work from the future to the
Yokoyama said he started making a 180-degree
turn from being a yeller and a screamer to being
``It was tough, and took me a year to
transform from who I was as a human being,'' he
said. ``It was a process for the whole business
and employees, because you can't force people to
change; it's up to them. We noticed that the
people who didn't commit to our vision left on
The Goodwill Games brought some initial
attention to the Pike Place Market, and not long
after, John Christensen, an educational business
filmmaker asked if he could use the Pike Place
Fish Market in a motivational film.
``He filmed us for five days, did interviews
and came back a month-and-a half later to show
us the video,'' said Yokoyama. ``When he said
he'd sell the 17-minute video for $599, we
couldn't believe it, but that video, `Fish!' has
become the hottest-selling educational video on
the market; it has been translated into 12
languages and has made him a
The video thrust the Pike Place Fish Market
into the spotlight. Since then the fish market
has appeared on TV shows like ``Frasier'' and
``Good Morning America,'' and the movie ``Free
Willy.'' His employees have appeared on MTV's
``The Real World, Seattle.''
The idea of flinging the fish to the back
counter came to Yokoyama 20 years ago when a
lady asked him for a pound of clams.
``It took 25 steps to go out from behind the
counter to the front and pick up the clams and
weigh them, so I threw the sack to the guy at
the scales to save myself 25 steps,'' Yokoyama
said with a laugh. ``From clams, it grew to
throwing anything without a big, sharp spine on
Yokoyama, 64, moved to Mercer Island with his
wife and daughter in 1979.
``I play golf in Bellevue, so it's between my
golf course and my business in Seattle, which is
convenient,'' he said.
Yokoyama has gotten used to giving speeches
and being interviewed for print and broadcast
news. When he was sharing his story with Joseph
Michelli, a radio broadcaster in Colorado in
2002, Michelli suggested they collaborate on an
inspirational business book.
``I'm not a writer,'' said Yokoyama.
``Michelli would come up every few weeks and
interview me and write it up, and we got it done
in a year. Then we called John Christensen,
who'd had a book published with Hyperion. He got
us in the door.''
``When Fish Fly'' has been out for nearly a
month, and already Yokoyama has been on KOMO TV
and ``Serious Money,'' a show on PBS.
``We had to have a new vision two years ago,
since we'd already become famous,'' said
Yokoyama. ``So we created a new vision of world
peace as an idea whose time has come. We aren't
sure how to do it, just like before, but we're
starting with ourselves, our friends and our
families, so we'll do it one person at a time.''
Yokoyama, who said the best thing about
empowering his employees is that he gets to play
golf four days a week, said he doesn't think
another book is in the offing.
``I don't know what the future will bring; I
was going to retire next year, but that's not
going to happen,'' he said. ``The future has
other plans for me.''