NEW YORK -- Alice Chappell, an American woman who forged a corporate career in the decorative arts, spent more than a year trying to induce the world's largest crystal company to extend its Japanese roots and enter the U.S. market.
Today Chappell is president of Hoya Crystal U.S.A., the American marketing arm of Hoya Corp.'s crystal division in Tokyo, which opened its first overseas art glass gallery on New York's Park Avenue last December.
Sitting in a vest pocket park outside the gallery, where glass sculptures by Hoya's internationally recognized Japanese artists are displayed along with striking stemware, vases and clocks, she recalled her first trip to Japan several years ago.
'At the time, I was casting about to change my life a bit and thinking of going into something more financial, like investment banking,' said Chappell, 43, who was then vice president of marketing for Steuben Glass and had been sales and marketing vice president for Avon Products Inc.
'I'd actually made a commitment in investment banking, but when I came back from Japan, I found I couldn't do that,' she said. 'Something had happened. I guess I was very touched by the aesthetics of Japan.'
Chappell, who has an extensive art history background, decided her heart was in art glass and began investigating Hoya after a friend dramatically proclaimed,'Alice, the future of crystal is in Japan.'
'I got some annual reports and discovered Hoya had this huge business with $90 to $100 million in annual sales just from crystal,' she said.
Then she remembered three pieces by Hoya artists in a show organized by the Metropolitan Museum in Corning that traveled around the world and celebrated the reawakening of the art glass movement.
'Each of the Hoya pieces was innovative and wildly contemporary in a very classical sense,' she said. 'Hoya stood out.'
Chappell was hooked and decided to develop a U.S. marketing strategy for Hoya.
With characteristic thoroughness, Chappell interviewed legions about dealing with a large Japanese company and was told: 'Work slowly, be patient and put a lot up front.'
Chappell originated a study on the U.S. crystal market, based on the premise that there was an opportunity for Hoya at the top.
As soon as she got in touch with Hoya, Chappell resigned from Steuben Glass, because, she said, she felt it unethical to have contact with competitors.
Hoya sent a representative to the United States to discuss the study, but Chappell did not realize at the time that he was a member of the company's founding family.
'A lot of people were terribly interested in bringing Hoya into the United States,' she said. 'I concluded that it had to be done under their own flag at first and in a market that was affluent.
The Hoya executive took the study, graciously thanked Chappell for the information and went home. It was nine months before she heard from Hoya.
In the interim, Chappell -- armed with an art history degree from Vassar College, a master of arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree in business administration from Columbia University -- pursued her decorative arts and tabletop consulting business called Fine Lines International Ltd.
She was a consultant to the Franklin Mint on developing and marketing a new line of fine crystal and jewelry, which meant living in the Philadelphia area during the week and seeing her husband and two daughters in Manhattan only on weekends.
'I hate being away from my family,' Chappell said. 'It was a real sacrifice, but if you like what you're doing, it makes it a lot easier.'
Then Hoya suddenly reappeared.
The company had translated Chappell's study into Japanese, examined it at length and decided to expand to the United States by opening a New York gallery.
Hoya, which has been making crystal since the 1940s, had a presence in the U.S. market many years ago but pulled out when its old-guard New York distributor disbanded.
'I think Hoya had just constructed yet another tank of this super premium, pure quality crystal, although it hadn't been done with the exact intention of coming back to the U.S. market,' Chappell said. 'The timing was right.'
The Japanese company asked her to find a gallery -- no easy task in midtown Manhattan.
Fumio Sasa, Hoya Crystal's senior executive director and design leader, remembered George Jensen's majestic silver doors on Fifth Avenue from his first trip to New York and had pined for a gallery on the elegant thoroughfare ever since.
But since Fifth Avenue has lost some of its glamor and Madison Avenue now is very fashion-oriented, Sasa chose the Park Avenue site because an art gallery had been the prior tenant, there was a garden outside and light streamed infrom both sides.
'Mr. Sasa, who is an architect by training, thought Park Avenue was a very pretty street and was willing to trade off some traffic,' Chappell said. 'I found the thought process fascinating in face of the realities of New York.'