The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

On January 31, Peter Jennings, president of Dow Chemical Japan and Korea, took over from Sachin Shah as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ). Previously a vice president on the ACCJ Board of Governors, Jennings looks to carry forward an agenda and process guided for the past 13 months by Shah, who has moved into a new role as CEO Asia Pacific Insurance at AIG and relocated to Singapore.

To find out more about Jennings’ views of the chamber and plans for the year, The ACCJ Journal sat down with the Michigan native—well known as one of the ACCJ’s strongest advocates—in his office at Dow Chemical Japan headquarters in Tokyo.

What has the ACCJ meant to you?
I came to Japan in 2012 without an expertise, really—certainly I was not an expert on Japan. I was the first American Dow Chemical Japan president in more than 25 years. The ACCJ was a very valuable resource for me because I was able to go listen to guest speakers and participate in the CEO Breakfast. I could actually sit down with other CEOs and ask, “How do you manage your groups? How do you learn about working in Japan?” So, the first few years here, it was absolutely a great indoctrination to the country and source of learning for me.

What do you intend to pursue as president?
First of all, I’d like to say that the tremendous amount of work that Sachin Shah did in one year is remarkable. His energy and enthusiasm are hard to follow.

He set the three main objectives—member centricity, relevant and strong advocacy, and operational excellence—that are now very clearly established. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit, as does Chris LaFleur, president before him. They are both remarkable guys, so super talented, who devoted a tremendous amount of energy and intellect to the ACCJ and the establishment of these three main objectives. I see no reason to pivot from these at this point in time. I think they are the right goals, and now it’s time for implementation. We need a relentless focus on execution this year.

How can the ACCJ better serve its members?
In terms of member centricity, my goal is to do a lot of liste­ning and learning. During the first 100 days, I’m planning to meet as many members as I can, one-on-one or in small groups, including through listening sessions or at town halls. The goal is for each member to be able to say, “Here’s why I joined the ACCJ,” and for us to be able to fulfill the value proposition for them individually or for their company. Whether through a company membership or as an individual, if each member believes they can optimize their professional skills and that they are getting the most out of their member­ship, you’re going to have dramatically different views of what the ACCJ is.

One idea that I plan to initiate, which builds on what we have already put in place, is a Membership Advisory Council. This will be an assembly of representatives from each membership category—big company, small company, individual member—and sit down together to talk about how we are attracting, retaining, and serving members.

Beyond member centricity, and the other two main objectives of operational excellence and relevant and strong advocacy, we also have five pillars:

  • US–Japan Economic Partnership
  • Digital Economy
  • Health and Retirement
  • Tourism, Sports, and Hospitality
  • Workforce Productivity

I’m in strong agreement that these are the right things to focus on this year and will continue to pursue this agenda.

Among the pillars, what stands out as a major ACCJ success?
There are many, but the Women in Business Summit, which will have just taken place when this issue of The ACCJ Journal is published, really stands out to me. It’s been the seminal event for some years now.

The ACCJ’s focus on workforce productivity is very important. Womenomics is very important. And I think we’ve been a leader in that area. Nobody has been more passionate about that subject than me since I’ve been here. Inclusion and diversity is a big part of our philosophy at Dow, and I think it’s the only way that Japan is going to continue to be the economically innovative country that it is. I wish the changes were happening faster, but, since I’ve been here, the majority of our hires at Dow have been women. That’s across the spectrum of positions in the company, from administration to science. In every business and function, we have hired more women than men in Japan.

And the ACCJ, through the Women in Business Committee and the summits, has been the leading voice in this area. That needs to continue, and I know it will.

Where have you seen the strongest progress so far?
The ACCJ’s primary purpose is to enable its membership to grow or enhance their businesses in Japan. So, it’s really fostering that partnership between US and Japanese businesses that comes first, and I think Sachin was very good at refocusing the ACCJ in terms of being a business-focused entity.

I went on a DC Doorknock, and that highlighted more to me that the ACCJ—because of the depth and collective strength of its members—is a very formidable, well-respected organization.

When we went to Washington, DC—it must have been in 2016—I was so overwhelmed by the respect that we got from 45 members of Congress. They agreed to the meetings. They listened. They knew all about the ACCJ and our members. They were totally engaged in the discussion.

I’ve not done the Diet Doorknock, but I understand it is the same case. When our members talk to Japanese officials and lawmakers during those sessions, they get the same feedback. So, I think that’s progress as the voice of US business in Japan. We can have an impact. I think we can play an important role in the US–Japan bilateral trade negotiations to make sure there are strong economic ties. That partnership is important.

What role can the ACCJ play in the bilateral trade talks?
I’m totally aligned with what Ambassador [William F.] Hagerty said in his recent interview with the Asahi Shimbun. An agreement on removing tariffs and trade barriers between the world’s largest and third-largest economies would absolutely benefit companies, producers, and consumers in both the United States and Japan. If you have enhanced trade between the two countries, absolutely everyone benefits from that.

What opportunities do you see surrounding the Olympics?
I have a vested interest in the Olympics. Dow is a Worldwide Olympic Partner and the Official Chemistry Company to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. As Tokyo prepares for this tremendous opportunity, the ACCJ membership will continue to parti­cipate, as we see chances arise, to make sure that our members are heard. Sports could become a leading piece of the tourism puzzle and have a huge economic impact for regions outside Tokyo. However it plays out, we want to make sure that our voice is heard.

Just as the 1964 Olympics were an opportunity for Japan, I think 2020 will be another. Tokyo can showcase what a wonderful international city it is, one of the top cities in the world. People from abroad will see a tremendously vibrant, great, efficient workforce. They will see a great place to live and work, a leading global business hub, and investment opportunities regardless of the industry.

What’s next for the ACCJ?
It was great that we celebrated our 70th anniversary last year. That was important, because we have a tremendous amount to be proud of. At the same time, any organization must continually reinvent and renew itself. If it doesn’t, it’s going to get passed by.

Business changes so fast now, and membership changes very rapidly, too. People are continually pressed for time. We need quicker answers. We need real-time everything. So, the ACCJ has to continually take another look at itself to be sure we are meeting those needs and doing so at the pace that is expected. You have to be a continuous learner and be willing to make changes. You can’t take anything for granted. That’s part of my mission this year, to ask, “Are we 100 percent committed to our goals?”

I think this is something that must be done on an annual basis. Each year, the ACCJ needs to look to see if we are offering the right opportunities to our members. Are we being responsive to the changing membership, the changing demographics, the changing business climate in Japan? And the only way to do that is by listening very carefully.

Anything else you would like to share?
I’m very excited to have this opportunity to lead the ACCJ, and I am extremely grateful to Dow’s CEO, Jim Fitterling, for his support in this endeavor. He did not hesitate for a millisecond when I asked about taking on the role of president. That is absolutely the Dow way, and I hope to bring that same understanding, encouragement, and support to my leadership of the chamber.

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