Most of the Saturday shoppers at Janss mall in Thousand Oaks, Calif., guessed they were seeing some kind of initiation rite. Eight men and two women took turns standing at attention outside Vons supermarket and shouting a song to a stern-faced man 75 ft. away. They all seemed oblivious of the curious onlookers, who were licking ice-cream cones and sipping soft drinks and beer on an unseasonably hot afternoon.
Andre Patenaude, 48, stepped forward, bowed deeply and began singing: "You must sell goods with the sweat of your brow . . ." When he finished, the crowd burst into applause. One of the other singers screamed, "You passed!" and flung himself at Patenaude in a congratulatory embrace. The crowd applauded again. "I don't know what it is," said a young woman pushing her grocery cart toward the parking lot, "but they sure are serious about it."
The shoppers had witnessed one of the critical tests in the first U.S. class $ conducted by Kanrisha Yosei Gakko, a renowned Japanese management training school. Known as a "hell camp" for salespeople and managers, the school requires students to sing a "sales crow" song -- so named because the singers are supposed to sound like cawing crows -- in a public place to break down their inhibitions. The curriculum includes memorizing rules of behavior, constant oral testing on classroom work, writing speeches and delivering them in stentorian tones, along with a 25-mile hike and other strenuous physical exercise.
Kanrisha Yosei Gakko was founded in 1979 by Ichiro Takarabe, a former educational-materials salesman. Takarabe's aim was to turn out more aggressive salesmen and managers, breaking down the traditional Japanese reserve. He started with six students in a small wooden shack on Tokyo Bay, but the school expanded rapidly and became an established part of Japan's corporate scene. Now located in Fujinomiya, a small city at the foot of Mount Fuji, the school boasts 100,000 graduates, most of whom were sent there by companies like Honda and Hitachi to be toughened up for the no-holds-barred competition of the Japanese marketplace and to be taught, as Instructor Naoyoshi Fujimori explains, "to work in harmony with their colleagues."
Success at home and attention from abroad made Takarabe wonder whether such a course would not succeed outside Japan. To help teach a U.S. version, he recruited two Americans. First, though, they had to pass the course themselves. Recalls Fred Delisle, 55, a retired U.S. Army colonel: "I told myself, 'Hell, I can't do this,' but pretty soon I was doing it." He and Classmate Dan Galitz, a former police training officer, finished ninth and seventh, respectively, in a class of 203.