How to win in Japan

Written by Tuija Seipell

“I try not to colour my thoughts but to start with an open mind and heart with everyone,” says Kazuko Komatsu, owner, president and CEO of Pacific Western Brewing in Prince George, B.C. “I also think I am very lucky and I try to always give more than I take. If you only take, your good luck will end.”

With her gentle and graceful demeanour, Komatsu does not come across as a tough entrepreneur and a woman who’s always gone where women “shouldn’t” go.

But the Japan-born and educated former school teacher who came to Vancouver in 1977 is a savvy businesswoman who became Canada’s first female brewery owner when she bought the flailing Pacific Western Brewery (PWB) in 1991. Convinced the company’s turnaround depended on diversifying into export markets, Komatsu spent $2.7 million in brewery upgrades and then used her personal contacts to begin exporting PWB beer to Japan. Today, the firm produces 10 beers and exports to China, Europe, South America and Russia. Komatsu shares her secrets to success in the “land of the rising sun.”

Still, Japan remains Pacific Western’s primary export market and Komatsu also owns several other companies that do business with Japan, including Natureland Products Ltd., which develops and markets specialty heath supplements and beverages and Kowa Canada Enterprises.

Indeed, Japan is B.C.’s largest trading partner and Canada’s second largest export market, importing $9.2 billion worth of goods and services in 2006. And despite a tough economy, there are still myriad opportunities to sell top quality products.

Komatsu shares her secrets to success in “the land of the rising sun.” Her advice is simple and practical but emphasizes that the quality and trust needed to form successful relationships start and thrive only if the basics are right:

  • Targeting the Japanese market requires a long-term commitment of time and money. Relationships are very important; ensure you know the customs and language.
  • Be open and suspend all prejudice and preconceived notions about how things “should” be in the country. Once on a Team Canada mission to Japan and other countries, Komatsu heard team members making fun of the customs and habits of the countries visited. “That is wrong,” she says. “We must respect and listen and learn, not criticize or make fun of the people and cultures we need to understand in order to work with them.”
  • Find out what your potential customers need. Canada has a great resource in its network of consulates and embassies, which can provide you with the research and contacts you need to enter foreign markets.
  • Do not give sole rights of all of your products to any one distributor. Komatsu starts with one product and develops the relationship brand by brand.
  • Attend trade shows to make potential contacts and to learn about industry trends. Komatsu attends the annual FoodEx Japan show in Tokyo. She also visits ANUGA in Cologne, Germany, and IFE in London annually to look for European trends, which typically take about two years to appear in North America and three years to appear in Japan.
  • The Japanese market is extremely quality conscious, says Komatsu, so ensure your product is top notch and unique from others in the market. Consumers in Japan are currently paying attention to organic, healthy and environmentally sensitive products.
  • Develop house brands with Japanese enterprises.
  • Don’t appear too eager or aggressive. Japanese businesspeople do not like to be pushed around and will become suspicious.
  • Avoid letting an eager buyer purchase too much. Start slowly and make sure the market is there. The benefit has to be mutual or the relationship will not last
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