The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan



Ringing true

Chair of U.S. Chamber of Commerce Steve Van Andel extols entrepreneurial spirit

There is a ship’s bell just outside the door to Steve Van Andel’s office, at the headquarters of Amway in Ada, Michigan. Every time Van Andel walks past that bell, it gives him a little mental nudge.

“There are a few skills and attributes I can think of that a business leader requires,” Van Andel told the ACCJ Journal in his capacity as head of the Executive Committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he has twice served as chairman.

“I tend to look at things in the context of an entrepreneur,” he said, shortly after addressing the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan’s CEO Forum. “And I think of my father as one of the great entrepreneurs.”

As a young man, Amway founder (and Steve’s father) Jay Van Andel bought a sailing boat with a friend. After carrying out some repairs, the pair set sail from Michigan, headed for South America.

It mattered little that Van Andel and his friend had never sailed a boat before and did not really know much about the skills required to operate a yacht safely over long distances. They were young, keen, and determined.

Things went reasonably well for the novice sailors as they crossed Lake Michigan and made their way up the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean. The East Coast likely presented more challenges, but the vessel eventually made it safely to the southern tip of Florida, from where the young men set out for Cuba.

They made it, but barely, Steve Van Andel commented.

“By the time they got to Cuba, they realized that they didn’t know what they were doing,” he said.

Before abandoning the boat, Van Andel salvaged a couple of items, including the ship’s bell. Instead of giving up on the adventure entirely, they proceeded to South America to complete what had been their original objective.

“I think about my father’s trip every time I see that bell,” Van Andel said. “He was a risk taker, and that just shows how determined he was. He did not stop at the first obstacle or any that followed. He kept going and he figured out how he was going to achieve what he had set out to do.”

Striking out abroad
Similar attributes are required of a business leader today, arguably more so for anyone traveling outside their comfort zone to establish or expand a business in a very different and challenging market—such as Japan.

“There are challenges here in the sense that there are challenges whenever a US firm goes overseas, with distance making things more difficult,” 59-year-old Van Andel said.

“A company has to look at the consumer for whatever kind of business they are in. They need to make sure that when they start their business, they have the products and distribution system that are required, and that they really give consumers what they want and need.”
Attempting to simply duplicate a system that works at home is often a mistake, he said. This is a message he had similarly expressed during his visit to South Korea before arriving in Japan.

“I think there are a lot of positives about the Japanese market at the moment, even though the economy has flattened out,” he explained. “We still see high rates of consumption, the country has tremendous wealth, and it has a very industrious population. When you bring those things together, the potential for the future is tremendous.”

Balancing the responsibilities and day-to-day needs of two vast and influential business organizations—the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Amway—must be a daunting undertaking, but Van Andel prefers to play up the synergies.

Essence of enterprise
“The great thing is that there are a lot of similarities between the chamber and Amway,” he said. “The chamber focuses on the spirit of enterprise, just like Amway, so there is a natural balance for me. That focus on entrepreneurship means that both dovetail nicely, making my days fairly easy.”

Founded in 1912, the US chamber is based in Washington, D.C. and has three million members. Its slogan is “Fighting for your business,” reflecting its core purpose as the single largest voice for US companies, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises that might otherwise be overlooked.

“We are here to help people get through a myriad of issues as they travel overseas or within the US,” Van Andel said.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan is one of 115 affiliates in 108 countries, and members here provide critical information on market developments. Van Andel believes it is his responsibility to keep in close contact with member companies here.

“The concerns that they have are those of most big businesses: what is going to happen in the future and what changes are they going to see,” he said. “Uncertainty for businesses is very difficult, no matter where you are.”

And that uncertainty, over everything from market regulations to changes in taxation regimes, “creates dynamics for business in which they hesitate on making decisions.”

Concerns aside, Van Andel remains optimistic about Japan in the years ahead.

“If we are seeing changes in the healthcare sector in Japan, and if the public is able to buy better care, then that is a business opportunity,” he said. “It also opens the market for consumers, whatever the demand, and permits businesses to step in.

“As these changes develop, there will be more and more opportunities,” he added, pointing to the vast potential in many business sectors surrounding the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Japanese government’s commitment to getting more women into the workforce.

“There are lots of things to be happy about for businesses in Japan,” he concluded.