A Steady Hand

A Steady Hand

The Club’s new president, Michael Alfant, shares his thoughts on leadership and the future of the Club.

Michael Alfant surveys the Traders’ Bar salad bar. Introduced last year, the lunchtime offering was one of the initiatives started during his two-year tenure as chair of the Club’s Food & Beverage Committee.

He notes the spread could use more protein. Even an option of egg would suffice, he says. “Now that I’m president, they still probably won’t listen to me,” says Alfant with a wry smile.

The longtime Member and successful entrepreneur was elected as the Club’s new president (or representative governor, as the title is officially known) after serving one year as second vice president on the Board of Governors.

Alfant succeeds John Durkin, who tasked Alfant in 2013 with bringing the budget for the Club’s restaurants into the black for the first time in Club history.

“There was just less of a focus on the commercial aspects of certain business functions of the Club, because there didn’t need to be,” says Alfant, who accomplished the directive in 2014. “During my first [Food & Beverage] committee meeting as chair, I said I want everybody to understand that we are not afraid of ideas.”

As president, the 55-year-old says he intends to make small, incremental changes to the Club, the same style that has brought him business and committee success. Besides examining Club dining’s bottom line, Alfant oversaw the installation of craft beer taps at Traders’ Bar, renovation of Rainbow Café’s kids’ play area and, on a larger scale, the launch of CHOP Steakhouse.

One of his first goals as president, he says, will be to find a solution to the congested family dining restaurants. He also has his eye on reducing the waiting list for the men’s locker room, installing new starting blocks and touchpads at the Sky Pool and increasing transparency in the governing of the Club.

“I don’t think this Club wants—or needs—sweeping changes or new initiatives. We need to keep iterating what we are doing and doing it better,” says Alfant. “I am a big believer in your customers will tell you exactly what they want. It’s up to you to listen to them.”

As Alfant talks, the experienced lecturer uses the occasional analogy from his field of expertise, information technology, using such terms as modular integration points to describe his ideas for Member outreach.

The Brooklyn kid, who once dabbled in programing for now-extinct computers like Altair for fun, sold his first software company in 1999 for $60 million. Since then, the New York sports fan and avid hiker has launched more than 20 companies and owns a technology consultancy with offices in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Los Angeles.

“[My first computer] was a home-built one. That was the only thing you could do, was build one yourself,” he says of the mail-order kit he assembled at the age of 14. “It was good training. You don’t want to make a mistake and have to redo it. It teaches you patience and precision.”

The computer science grad spent a good portion of the 1980s working on Wall Street as a junior partner in an IT firm that serviced top financial institutions, which meant mainly switching out reels of tape, changing printer paper and, when time allowed, writing code.

When a West Coast investment bank sent Alfant to its Tokyo office to update its primitive IT infrastructure, a one-week project turned into 18 months. Alfant, meanwhile, discovered an affinity for Japan. So when his request for a transfer was denied, he relocated to Tokyo in 1989. Without any contacts, access to financing or Japanese-language ability, he says he “hustled” for clients.

“I was young and naïve and overconfident. I didn’t particularly feel like it was a risk, as much as I felt like it was a calling,” says Alfant. “My character and personality is much more suited to the Japanese style rather than the New York style. In Japan, we say the customer is a god and I really do feel that is one of the keys to business.”

In 1992, Alfant launched Fusion Systems Japan, creating business software for Tokyo’s major banks. Through aggressive recruiting of top talent, the company grew to a staff of 150. One notable success was the firm’s development of a financial trading system for the Tokyo Stock Exchange. He sold the company in 1999, the year he joined the Club. Just three years later, he overhauled the Club’s IT infrastructure while serving as the volunteer chief information officer.

“If you have a great team, you look great as a manager. It’s funny how that works,” he says. “To me, it’s a lot about building that team, especially the nucleus, that core team around you. If you can do that and get out of their way, you can make a lot happen.”

While he admits that a private members’ club operates differently from a tech start-up, Alfant, who served as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan from 2011 to 2012 and as its chairman in 2013, says he welcomes the challenge.

Alfant says long-term plans include determining membership capacity. “It’s the same as when you get on an airplane,” he says. “If it’s too crowded, your experience diminishes.”

He also plans to work with the Membership Committee on alternative approaches for recruiting non-Japanese Members. He says the demographics of expats in Japan are trending younger, and the Club should explore beyond the traditional industries that have been the organization’s “happy hunting ground.”

Another goal of Alfant’s is to create a path for younger Members to become involved in Club governance, and to support the Club’s Tokyo 2020 Olympic Committee in its ongoing bid to serve as USA House during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“In a club with close to 4,000 memberships, which encompass 13,000 Members, there are going to be a lot of points of view,” he says. “There will always be people who are just on one side or the other of the line on every decision we make. We need to be sensitive to that, but we can’t let it paralyze us.”

With the Club having recovered from its dramatic drop in membership following 2008’s global financial crisis and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, Alfant says the Club is in a strong position, with cash in the bank, an impressive facility and a positive financial outlook.

“There is no reason we can’t be the best club in Asia, and be everything we want to be under the current financial situation,” says Alfant. “Obviously, it requires constant attention and diligence, but the ship is sailing in the right direction.”

Words: Nick Narigon
Image: Yuuki Ide