The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

More and more businesses are going global. Great success at home often leads executives and managers to believe that their product and sales training strategy can be readily transplanted; but that is not always easily done. Adapting plans and processes to the local culture is important, and PepsiCo Japan General Manager Ryo Tsutsumi shared his advice on doing this with members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) on October 4 at Tokyo American Club.

The speaker event, led by ACCJ Sales Develop­­ment Committee Co-Chair Carlo La Porta, focused on integrating global best practices.

Tsutsumi sat down with La Porta for a casual and candid conversation in which he shared how his experiences have helped him find success as a business leader in Japan.

“I see myself as probably 100- to 120-per­­cent Japanese. I spent eight years grow­ing up in the United States, where you actually reflect on what it takes to be Japanese. I had the opportunity to reflect and see that from the outside in. There­fore, when I talk to Japanese people, I think I probably pick up on a lot more Japanese things than most Japanese people.”

After working at Rengo Co., Ltd., one of Japan’s largest packaging companies, which Tsutsumi calls “very Japanese,” he moved on to Johnson & Johnson K.K. in pursuit of a more global environment before landing at PepsiCo Japan Co., Ltd.

These stops allowed him to get a better feel for how business strategies should be adapted to different cultures—even within a single company—to realize greater success.

The biggest difference Tsutsumi found at Johnson & Johnson compared with Rengo was the diversity of the organiza­­tion and the difficulty of executing or implementing strategies and plans in a very diverse context.

One key to success in Japan that Tsutsumi discussed is finding a way to leverage the experience and knowledge of long-serving staff.

Recounting how he climbed the ladder at Johnson & Johnson, where he started as a sales representative and left as head of the sales division with a team of 130, he said: “The luxury I had was to be walking along with the team, to actually understand the team. But what I didn’t understand in those days is that there is—in a Japanese sales organization—a big group of opinion leaders in their late forties to mid-fifties. They’re an experienced bunch of people who have been proper employees, have all been in sales, and have a great deal of experience.

“The downside is that they have been with the company [a long time], so they are conservative. But they know the people within the organization, they know the customers. I noticed that these people are the hidden opinion leaders. I found that to be one of the key factors in moving a Japanese sales team.”

As the portion of the workforce comprising Millennials grows, finding a way to bridge the gap and create teams that work well together is a common challenge. Tsutsumi explained how he uses a two-generation scheme for training so that advice, experience, and instruction are more easily accepted. This involves a train-the-trainer approach in which the younger generation is trained in how to train the generation above them.

“Those in their forties and fifties will never listen to a 20-year-old straight out of school. From their view, that person doesn’t know anything about life. Seniority still does count in Japan—a lot. Rather than fighting it, you should appreciate it and utilize it. That has worked for me,” he said, adding that a five to seven years age difference yields the best results.

A benefit of this approach is that things are not imposed from the top down, thus minimizing resistance, and there is also a track record of results by the time the information is delivered to the conservative elders.

But training isn’t the only thing to consider. Speaking about multi­nationals looking for success in the Japanese market, Tsutsumi said that—in terms of product—it is important to focus on a target group rather than trying to appeal to everyone.

“If you’re an FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] company, you would not want to go broad because your domestic competitors are going to be a lot faster, so you want to be sure you compete in a very sharp area and secure that rather than go for the big one,” he said. “And keep communicating that—the goal—to the corporate people.”

The event was presented in collaboration with the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Japan and Italian Chamber of Commerce in Japan, and co-hosted by the ACCJ Sales Development, Independent Business, Human Resource Management, Retail, and Food & Agriculture Committees.

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.