I was assigned to one of Mitsui’s natural resource-related departments when I first joined the company in 2014. As you can probably imagine, the department handles deals worth colossal sums. It tends to be the older, more experienced people who get to handle the negotiations as a result. As a younger member of the team, I spent most of my time in front of the computer. To be frank, it wasn’t quite the exciting and glamorous life I’d envisaged at a trading company.
But that same year Mitsui also launched a new human resources development program. The idea was to send the younger employees out to Mitsui’s regional offices around Japan to gain hands-on experience in the field. A friend of mine who took part in the program’s first year enjoyed it, so I volunteered for year two. The upshot was that I was sent to Mitsui’s Tohoku office in the northeast in July 2015.
The Tohoku region was the epicenter of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. Among other regeneration initiatives, our Tohoku office is supporting the revival of Kesennuma, a fishing town that was particularly badly damaged by the tsunami. Our policy is to support regional revitalization by helping build sustainable businesses. Fishing and fish-processing are key industries in the region, and in 2012 Mitsui had joined forces with another firm to help establish the Kesennuma Shishiori Fisheries Processing Cooperative Association, a group of around 20 local fish-processing companies. Our role is to help improve operational efficiency and develop new sales channels. When I was transferred to Tohoku, the cooperative had just completed a new factory to replace the one destroyed in 2011.
As part of my networking activities in Tohoku, I met with the local branch of the Norinchukin Bank, a cooperative bank that focuses on the agricultural, fishing and forestry industries. The bank’s representatives and I agreed that domestic consumption of canned fish products had hit a ceiling; if the cooperative wanted to develop meaningful new markets for its new factory’s output, expanding abroad was the only way to go.
The Norinchukin Bank was planning to award a substantial grant to the Shishiori Processing Cooperative as part of its regional revitalization drive. What if this grant was used to develop new export markets under the supervision of Mitsui, taking advantage of our experience in international marketing?
In autumn 2016 the funds were forthcoming. And that’s when I started developing the export business. I did everything—drawing up a business plan, securing a budget and identifying opportunities abroad. Eventually I settled on Singapore as the most promising place for us to start. Because it’s a prosperous, multi-ethnic place, Singaporeans have access to a variety of good food and pride themselves on their gourmet tastes.
I took the products of the Shishiori Processing Cooperative to Singapore for “Food Japan” in October 2016. Food Japan is one of the biggest Japanese-food related event in South East Asia. Lasting for three days, it’s attended by around 12,000 people. We exhibited about 30 different products from Kesennuma at our booth. From salmon roe and wakame seaweed to mackerel simmered in miso and yellowtail with daikon radish cooked in soy sauce, these are sophisticated products for sophisticated consumers.
Around 40 buyers expressed an interest. I am now getting them to come over to the Kesennuma factory one at a time. Before we negotiate price, it’s important for them to see how the products are made. Japanese fish-processing technology is of an extremely high standard. Our products really taste far fresher and tastier than anything our overseas competitors can produce.
Am I enjoying the job? Absolutely. I’m responsible for planning, finance and implementation. Because I’m out on the front line, I have more responsibility, and, frankly, a lot more fun.
What the Shishiori Processing Cooperative gets from Mitsui’s involvement is access to our marketing power. We’re a recognized name globally and have links with all sorts of companies—wholesalers, supermarkets, whatever. We pride ourselves on our ability to discover attractive regional products and create new markets for them by leveraging our connections around the world. Long term, I want the name Kesennuma to become synonymous with tasty seafood products worldwide.
Posted in February 2017