A few minutes after 5 p.m. one recent Wednesday as the sun set on Century City, a trickle of visitors began arriving at the Westside offices of Fujisankei Communications International. An hour later, the Japanese company's suite of offices was packed with about 100 men and women who munched on sushi and peanuts between sips of wine and soda.
Steven Clemons interrupted the chatter of Japanese and English to introduce the evening's host, Fujisankei Executive Vice President Masaru Kakutani. The formalities took less than five minutes because as Clemons, executive director of the Japan America Society of Southern California reminded visitors, "The one rule is that we have no formal speakers and no set agenda."
Welcome to the 5:01 Club.
Chapters of the 2-year-old organization each meet once a month in downtown Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, the Westside and soon the South Bay. Sponsored by the Japan America Society, Japan Business Assn. and Japanese Chamber of Commerce, the 5:01 Club is a deliberately informal way for those interested in Japan to meet one another.
It is one of a number of networking opportunities in Southern California for business people, students and others interested in meeting each other and learning about the Asia-Pacific countries and issues. The Asia Society/Southern California Center, for example, sponsors monthly brown bag lunches downtown at noon and Asian Updates at 5:30 p.m.
Similar networking opportunities have popped up across the country under the sponsorship of the Japan America Society. In Chicago, the society has set up Meishi (business card) Exchange. Portland has a 5:01 Club, and the Japan America Society of Southern Florida is planning one. The Georgia arm of the society has the Nichibei Business Club, which is designed to give corporate members a vehicle for networking.
These networking groups provide a less formal and less costly alternative to typical lunch and dinner programs. Clemons originated the idea for the 5:01 Club, which "means after work."
"The idea came from a luncheon when I couldn't get people to sit down," he explained at the Fujisankei 5:01 gathering that initiated the new Westside chapter. "It was a luncheon on banking and people enjoyed mingling and talking. There was nothing for them to get together in both the Japanese and American community."
So Clemons started with a group of 15. "It started out small at Mandarin Cove in Wells Fargo Center over nachos at the happy hour. . . . It just grew and grew and grew." Today, the Los Angeles chapter of the 5:01 has 1,000 members, 98 in San Diego, 75 in West Los Angeles and 85 in Orange County.
The format is after hours, casual and sponsored by a company, such as Bank of America, Trust Services of America, Baker & McKenzie, Mitsui Real Estate or Industrial Bank of Japan.
It has proved especially popular with younger people. "This is evolving into a social place involving younger generations, which we did not expect at the inception of the 5:01 Club," said Hiroyuki Saito, senior vice president and general manager at Mitsui & Co. in Los Angeles. "We consider it a very pleasant surprise because younger people are the next generation who should interface with each other."
Clemons says the format of the 5:01 was designed to provide a break from some of the rigid protocol and hierarchy of meeting Japanese executives and managers. "The idea is to mix everybody," Clemons explained. "Our biggest marketing tool is that we don't have speakers, there is no formality, no agenda. . . . The unusual thing about the 5:01 is that people want to come. They really want to be there, they come from all over the place. It's low budget and good will."
Anne P. Sharp, for example, welcomes the opportunity to make business acquaintances outside business formalities. "The whole thing is kind of an interesting idea," observed the special assistant to the chairman on Asian business relations at Trust Services of America.
"It is under the veneer of being really casual, but you don't take business cards to a really casual place. . . . I really enjoy it. They are a lot of fun because you can approach people who you might not otherwise have an opportunity to."
Richard H. Davis, adviser for project finance at Great American Bank, often schedules his business trips from San Diego to coincide with a 5:01 meeting in Los Angeles. "I think it is . . . one of the very best social meeting places for Japanese executives to meet with their American counterparts. It's low key and informal. . . . It encourages people to come out at the last minute without making elaborate plans."
More important, Davis said of the 5:01, "the price is right at $10 a year."