SEED started its full-fledged global expansion in 2011. The Overseas Department is on a continuing mission to exploit and expand new business fields at the forefront of SEED. In this session, we will explore what our associates do in their day-to-day tasks, along with an interview with the general manager and associate heading the Overseas Department to hear about their operations, future business strategies, and the kind of people they are looking for.
---Thank you for giving us an opportunity today for an interview. In this session, we would like to hear about the Overseas Department’s operations and your everyday tasks in line with SEED’s slogan, “Supporting your vision.” First, what kind of department is the Overseas Department?
NojimaTo put it simply, it is a department that undertakes sales activities targeting overseas markets. SEED only spun up its global business in 2011, so this department is also quite new. As of today, we have fifteen members working at the headquarters, including myself as the general manager. Out of that, six are Japanese, and the rest of the staff are from China, Taiwan, Korea... and here we have with us today, Ms. Valerie from Singapore. Ms. Valerie was working at a SEED subsidiary in Singapore before she joined us here.
ValerieThat’s right. Before joining SEED, I was teaching English in Japan and then I returned to Singapore and joined SEED there. I came to Japan again in 2013. Ever since, I’ve been working at this department.
NojimaSEED’s global business strategy started with a focus on China and ASEAN, and then expanded to Europe in 2015. Ms. Valerie is taking leadership of our business in Europe.
ValerieYes. I am in charge of all of Europe. Most of my work involves proposing new products to medical manufacturers and distributors, negotiating and signing contracts, and supporting sales. Other tasks include being the contact person for SEED when, as a distributor, we are selling new foreign technologies and products that have not been introduced to Japan, translating technical documents, and negotiating agreements.
---The Overseas Business Department’s line of operations covers a lot of ground. As you mentioned, currently the department is operating in Asia and Europe, but do strategies and marketing policies differ among areas?
NojimaWhat we do for each region is basically the same. However, the maturity of the contact lens market differs between Europe and Asian countries, which we keep in mind. For example, more people in Asia are unfamiliar with contact lenses, and so we first approach them with the benefits of using contact lenses. On the other hand, European users tend to seek technical lenses, like the bifocal and astigmatic lenses.
ValerieNow that you mention it, there are many people who are far-sighted in Europe. I feel that this may be a reason for the high demand for bifocal lenses. On the other hand, most people needing vision correction in Asia are near-sighted, but the recent positive sales trend is for the circle lens. More people are looking to fashion, and the decorative aspect of circle lenses are a nice match. The demand of China and some other countries in Asia is high, so the chances of contact lens market expansion are huge. I would like to infuse efforts in the introduction of disposable lenses as well in the near future.
NojimaI’m all for that. Nevertheless, whether it be for Asia or Europe, we will continue to embrace our “Made in Nippon” quality across the board. In terms of marketing capacity, we cannot compete with foreign giants. Suppose we competed on price, there is still no guarantee that it will pay off in the future. Instead, we have the “Made in Nippon” quality and the techniques that we have built up over the 65 years of being in this business. I would like to put that forward in the competition.
ValerieIn our course of business abroad, you cannot help but realize the trust people place in “Made in Nippon.” That’s the same in Asia and Europe. Japan has an established reputation for technology, so we can promote our distinctiveness among the countless foreign contact lens manufacturers.
---Is it challenging to do business with people in different countries?
ValerieIn fact the traits and attitude toward business greatly vary by country. Some countries take business very seriously while others are a bit loose. There are differences among the countries, so understanding such characteristics while pursuing business can be tricky, though interesting.
NojimaRegional needs can be difficult to capture from the outside, so it is important to listen to the locals’ opinions in person. That naturally means that this job has a lot of business trips. We also have opportunities to meet and listen to all the leaders of overseas subsidiaries in one place. Ms. Valerie also flies abroad at a fairly high frequency.
ValerieYes, I go on a business trip abroad at least once a month. Additionally, we have what we call “tightly-scheduled business trips,” in which we go anywhere, in Japan or overseas, overnight. Once you’re out on a distance business trip, you won’t be coming back to Japan for a week. Especially going to Europe, lots of time is lost to travel both ways, so I make my schedule so that I can see as many people as possible.
NojimaBusiness trips to Europe are quite hefty. The trip itself is hard, but the scheduling around it is even more demanding.
ValerieI agree. At first, it was exciting. (Laughs) But the 12 hours flignt is physically tiring. However, it’s a privilege of being in this department that I get to be in touch with people from different parts of the world.
NojimaAt the end of the day, overseas business and global expansion simply and consequently means to build a trust relationship with people. When something happens, we fly over to the customers and speak to them face-to-face. It’s the same as marketing in Japan, just that our customers are abroad. In terms of building trust relationships, Ms. Valerie is amazing. Particularly, she is really quick with responding to e-mails!
ValerieBecause of the big time difference between Europe and Japan, for example, if you wait to respond to an e-mail from an European distributor, it may be nighttime there by the time you send a reply. An e-mail correspondence that can be concluded within minutes in Japan can take up to a couple days if your timing is off. If I was a customer, I wouldn’t want to ask a partner who is slow in responding however good their products are. I don’t want to lose the opportunity to promote SEED products for such petty reasons, so I try to be careful about this.
NojimaContact lenses are something you put in the eyes, so it’s the basic premise for them to have good quality and be safe. On top of that, we need to compete with other companies in the industry, so as I said before, price competition on its own has no future. SEED has the “Made in Nippon” selling point, so it is up to us to establish the credibility to fully utilize that.
---Now that we have heard mostly about your overseas operations, how do you work with other departments in the company?
NojimaInternally, we work in collaboration with the Marketing & Planning Department the most. We have much in common with the domestic marketing department regarding marketing activities. We discuss such matters with the Marketing & Planning Department to ensure collaboration.
ValerieWe also frequently work with the License Division of the Pharmaceutical Affairs Department.
NojimaThat’s right. To sell medical devices abroad, you need to acquire licenses based on the statutes of each country, and this can get very complicated. The License Division is responsible for handling such registration matters. In fact, we still have staff from the Pharmaceutical Affairs Department fly abroad to help us with the registration process. We also work with the Production Department and Technical Division.
ValerieWe ask them to prepare packages and package inserts. These are also customized because of the different languages and rules depending on the country and region. Once we have an order, we ask for production lines and cost management. Come to think of it, we did have a lot of dealings with other departments. (Laughs)
NojimaThe Overseas Business Department is a team that deals in everything, so inherently we get involved with a lot of people. Being a foreigner, Ms. Valerie, how do you find working in a Japanese company?
ValerieSEED is relatively similar to a foreign company in terms of corporate climate. On top of all, decisions are made swiftly. Being quick with making decision is a key factor in overseas business. Perhaps President Urakabe’s overseas experience is playing a significant part in this. Taking time to make decisions on its own holds us back to a slow, disadrantages start. As an employee doing business abroad, I really appreciate the quick decisions.
NojimaI worked abroad for many years before joining SEED, and I think that the speed of SEED’s decision making is comparable to that of international companies. However, there are still many parts of the company that need improvement. For such matters, I hope that we, as the Overseas Business Department, can be a role model and communicate what is the global standard.
---Thank you very much. Finally, can we have a word from you to the prospective members?
ValerieTo work on an international stage, I think being self-motivating and self-directing is crucial. The Overseas Business Department is a place for people who can spontaneously find what they want to do or should do, not wait around for orders. We prefer people who can make proposals and are rich with ideas.
NojimaThis may sound harsh, but we are not looking for someone who would just do what their predecessor did. Ideally, we want people who can think through why something is necessary and whether things are adequate―the meaning of the specific task. It is also important to always have the attitude for taking on challenges. For example, even when you are doing the same routine work, we want something who would think: “Last time I this took me 10 minutes, so this time I’ll aim for 9. What can I do to shorten that time?”
ValerieSpeaking of routine work, the Overseas Business Department has just been set up, and we are still exploring. There aren’t many jobs that can be routinely completed, so I think you would need the energy to cut your way through tasks with no precedents.
NojimaI agree. However, recently we have started to accumulate know-how. It is our near-future challenge to establish how we can share this know-how within the division and improve the level of the entire organization. We must grow together on this point as well.
ValerieThe environment is getting organized, so an addition of young members would increase the department’s momentum. I myself want to keep on challenging as well.
NojimaWe are looking forward to seeing highly motivated applicants who we can work together to enliven the Overseas Business Department.
(This interview was given in November 2016.)