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BCCJ Member Spotlight: Ralf Mayer (San-Ten Consulting LLC)
Written by BCCJ
December 14, 2023
BCCJ Junior Editor, Monica Yang and Yui Kuwabara caught up with Ralf Mayer of San-Ten Consulting to learn more about his journey from chemistry to consulting. In this interview, we learn about some of the common pitfalls foreign enterprises make when approaching Japan, why patience and persistence is key, and the San-Ten approach to finding chemistry with clients.
Ralf, Thank you for joining us. Could you tell us a little bit more about your journey from studying chemistry in Germany to becoming an executive consultant in Japan?
It’s been an unusual journey, highlighting the unpredictability of career paths. My intrigue in chemistry stemmed from an early age leading me to study and specialise in catalysis. I completed my Ph.D. in catalysis and started my career with a German chemical company, then known as Degussa (now Evonik Industries). Like many chemists, I began in research and development (R&D), working as a lab and group manager focused on catalysts.
After five years, I sought a new challenge and found a role in the company’s in-house consulting department and later as a global project manager for the design and roll-out of a new HR IT system. This allowed me to build new skill sets and at the same time, travel worldwide, learning about various cultural differences and nuances often to my surprise. For example, in Taiwan, it’s considered impolite to ask about marital status, while in Germany, it’s crucial for payroll purposes.
As that project concluded, I accepted an opportunity to work in Japan as a business development manager. I moved to Japan a decade ago as an expat for Evonik, responsible for business development. However, when my time was up, I was not ready to part ways with the country and return to Europe, and this was when I decided to make the leap and establish San-Ten Consulting. I saw an opportunity to facilitate interactions between different business cultures and offer advice that I know would help companies have a softer landing in Japan.
Were there any cultural surprises in Japan that caught you off-guard?
One notable surprise was the perception of Japan as a high-tech hub. While it’s true that Japan is a pioneer in developing technology used worldwide, it’s intriguing that many Japanese themselves often utilise older technology. For instance, there are companies in the automotive industry using 30-year-old computers to control their production operations. This stark contrast between technology development and use in everyday life came as a big surprise.
In the realm of work, the decision-making process stands out as a major difference compared to Germany and many other countries. Decisions in Japan are typically reached through consensus among all relevant stakeholders, which can be a lengthy process, unlike the faster decision-making approach I had become accustomed to. However, the upside is that once a decision is made, its implementation is remarkably smooth and you have a better sense of unity with all stakeholders involved.
In your 20+ years of managerial work, what would you say are some of the lessons learned ‘the hard way’, or has it been largely smooth sailing?
It’s not easy to pinpoint one particular instances. However, one lesson I’ve learned to adapt to is accepting decisions from above that I may not personally agree with. It is a skill to balance sticking up for what you believe to be right, and not making a situation worse through resistance. That being said, having my own business has provided me with more autonomy in decision-making, allowing me to follow what I believe is the right path.
I’ve learned that there’s no single formula for success. Sometimes, decisions that initially seem unfavourable can lead to positive outcomes. It’s therefore crucial to remain open to different ideas and approaches, recognizing that there are many different forms and measurements of what success looks like. Collaboration, discussion, and embracing different perspectives are key to achieving this..
What inspired you to found San-Ten Consulting and what is the thinking behind the name?
The inspiration for founding San-Ten Consulting stemmed from my personal experiences working in business development at Evonik in Japan. I encountered numerous challenges, misunderstandings, and difficulties when dealing with project managers from outside Japan who lacked an understanding of Japanese culture. These misunderstandings sometimes led to unsuccessful projects or missed opportunities, as German managers might not be patient enough, impose time pressures, or fail to grasp that a solution unique to Japan could render our products obsolete.
I realised the importance of bridging these cultural differences, making them understandable for foreign companies, and helping them navigate the Japanese business landscape. It was also crucial to educate them about the timeframes required for success in Japan, particularly in B2B businesses, where success often takes more time—typically two to three years, rather than a few months. These experiences made me aware of the misconceptions and misunderstandings about Japan prevalent in the business world outside. My vision for San-Ten Consulting is to serve as a bridgehead in Japan for foreign companies, helping them do business and develop their presence in the country.
Regarding the name, we wanted to convey the idea of bridging gaps and connecting different elements. We decided on the name “San-Ten Consulting,” drawing inspiration from the three dots commonly used in the Western world to signify something missing or a connection between parts. In our interpretation, the foreign company represents one dot, the Japanese company is the second dot, and San-Ten Consulting serves as the third dot connecting and bringing them together.
What do you believe your most important social contribution is?
I believe our most significant social contribution lies in enabling Japanese society to access and benefit from solutions and products originating from outside Japan. This can be challenging due to language barriers and differences in understanding. We actively work on translations and explanations to bridge these gaps, making these products more accessible and comprehensible for the Japanese market.
Many of the products we introduce also have inherent contributions. To give one example, we work with a company providing biodegradable polyester fibres that break down in oceans. By bringing such materials to Japan, we are enabling the Japanese industry to create products like shirts, non-woven masks, and hygiene items that are capable of biodegradation. This helps reduce microplastic pollution and has positive environmental implications.
What kind of services do you typically provide?
We offer two primary services that are closely intertwined. First, we assist foreign companies in establishing their presence and conducting business in Japan. We work as a representative office for organisations, and take on responsibilities such as sales, marketing, product promotion and participation in exhibitions to connect with potential customers. Our aim is to act not only as a service provider but as an integral part of the foreign company’s operations.
For products that may not align with this, or that require a different sales channel (e.g, retail distribution), we assist in finding the right partners in Japan. This approach is particularly valuable when a foreign company is struggling with current distributors who may not have met initial expectations. We strive to identify partners who align more closely with European or Western sales practices, enhancing the chances of successful market expansion.
One example that stands out, two years ago we connected a German company specialising in food supplements with a suitable partner in Japan. We found a dynamic and young distributor team that resonated well with the target audience—primarily younger women with specific needs. This distributor was adept at social media marketing and had a portfolio of products complementary to the German company’s offerings. It has been a delight to see this partnership go from strength to strength
Another area of pride is in the trust we’ve built over time with Japanese companies. This trust has led Japanese companies approaching us proactively, seeking our assistance and expertise. This has been a shift from the push approach, where we presented our offerings, to a pull approach, where Japanese companies now reach out to us.
Can you explain the typical challenges foreign companies face when entering the Japanese market and how you help them overcome such hurdles?
It’s essential to clarify the term “market entry support” because it can have various interpretations. We specialise in helping companies initiate their business development in Japan without the immediate necessity of establishing a subsidiary in the country. We offer a service fee arrangement that essentially provides a partial, part-time solution. We take on the responsibility of kickstarting the business development in Japan, promoting the products or services and acting like a part of the sales & marketing organisation of our clients. This approach results in cost savings for the companies, making us stand out from many others in the field.
As someone deeply familiar with both Western and Japanese business culture, what advice would you give to anyone considering an expansion in Japan?
The most critical advice is to set realistic expectations regarding your timeline, particularly in the context of B2B sales involving products that require explanation and development. Many foreign companies mistakenly assume they can achieve quick sales in Japan. Consequently, they become disappointed and withdraw prematurely, resulting in a waste of resources.
Another key consideration is whether there is a market for your product in Japan. An example from my days at Evonik, we offered PMMA films for window frames lamination. In Europe, PVC window frames are prevalent and customers often want them to resemble wooden frames. Japan however predominantly uses aluminium window frames, and the market for plastic window frames is very small. This illustrates the importance of understanding the local market characteristics.
Looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations for San-Ten Consulting?
Let me start first by reflecting on the past six years. It has been an intriguing journey, somewhat akin to a startup experience. Although I didn’t follow the traditional startup route with external investors, the initial two years were challenging, similar to what startups often refer to as the “death valley”. During this period, acquiring enough customers and clients was difficult. However, in the last four years, even during the pandemic, we were able to grow our business despite the obvious challenges.
Our business is expanding and the future holds exciting possibilities as we continue to enhance our service portfolio and explore new avenues for growth. As for the classic HR interview question of “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I’ve experienced many twists and turns in my career, making it hard to predict where I’ll be in five years. What I do know is that I thoroughly enjoy what I do now, and it’s immensely satisfying to witness not only our own success but also the success of our clients.
BCCJ: Thank you very much for sharing your stories with us.