The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

51-year veteran of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ), William Mahr is one of the longest-serving members in the chamber’s history. “But it seems like it was only yesterday when I joined,” he insisted as The ACCJ Journal spoke with him by phone. “And, for a long time, I was one of the younger participants in the various meetings. How time flies.”

Born in Yokohama to a German father and a Danish mother, Mahr’s grandparents had come to Japan from Europe when the country opened up to the West in the latter part of the 19th century. He has lived in Tokyo since the 1960s, but credits the longevity of his career with being able to escape to Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, on weekends and holidays.

We talked to him about his experiences living and working in Japan, how he sees the challenges brought about by Covid-19, and where things may go next.

Where did you study? What was your first career move?
After graduating from St. Joseph College High School in Yokohama, I studied business administration at St. Mary’s College of California, in Moraga, in the San Francisco Bay area. After graduating, I worked at a bank in San Francisco before returning to Japan to join Price Waterhouse Co., now PwC Japan, in Tokyo. After working with Price Waterhouse for five years, I was recruited by Fluor Daniel Japan to work for them as an office manager. Eventually, I was elected to assume the role of representative director in Japan for Fluor in 1992. I have been with the company for a total of 51 years as of this year.

Mahr attended St. Joseph College High School in Yokohama.

When and why did you join the ACCJ?
I joined the ACCJ in 1969 as an Additional Company Repre­sentative to replace a colleague who had returned to the United States. That was the year that Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I subsequently became a Company Voting Member in 1986. When I first joined the chamber, I was active in the Construction and Architecture Committee, and have since remained in the chamber to keep in touch with various busi­ness contacts and to stay attuned to the latest developments in the business environment between Japan and the United States.

There have been some testing times in your years in Japan. Which was the most worrying and why?
Economic cycles of boom and bust, as well as natural calami­ties, are unfortunately an inevitable part of life that remains beyond the control of any single person. I’ve found it important over my long career to focus on things that you actually have control over, and to put into perspective temporary downturns in the economy. The lessons I’ve drawn in this regard are that no matter how bleak things look at the moment, they will eventually get better—that this too shall pass. The same can be said about the Covid-19 pandemic. I also find that these testing times are an opportunity for new ideas and business practices to be adopted more readily than during normal times. I’m curious to see how the current pandemic will give rise to new ways of thinking and working, as well as create new business opportunities.

How damaging has Covid-19 been for your company?
Fluor Daniel Japan is involved in large-scale construction projects in Japan, working in joint ventures with Japanese construction companies. Thus, from a business perspective, the present coronavirus pandemic seems most damaging among past crises, as this has caused significant delays and created other obstacles to these construction projects in a way that I’ve never seen over 50 years of working in this industry. And, this has caused clients to be hesitant to invest in newer projects due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

What business lessons have you learned through the years?
During my long working history, I have learned to be honest, loyal to the company, as well as to enjoy and take pride in what I do.

Mahr (front left) at the St. Joseph reunion shinnenkai in January.

Are you optimistic that Japan will bounce back?
I am. Historically, such as in the case of the bursting of the economic bubble and the Lehman shock, Japan has always managed to recover from such economic downturns, and I believe that the economy will eventually return to normal once again when the pandemic has settled. However, it will take some time.

What is the secret to success in business in Japan?
I am sometimes asked about this. Having witnessed over the years both successful and unsuccessful examples of foreign companies, as well as expats, trying to establish themselves in the Japanese market, I firmly believe that a stable foundation, as well as a strong understanding of the Japanese culture—particularly of the business culture—is very important. In addition, the actualization of genuine and long-lasting relationships with Japanese business associates is paramount.

What does the future hold?
It has been a great privilege to have been associated with the ACCJ for more than half a century, and I look forward to contin­uing my association with the chamber for years to come.

Julian Ryall is Japan correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.
I’ve found it important over my long career to focus on things that you actually have control over, and to put into perspective temporary downturns in the economy.