Strengthening Your Network

JMEC Featured in the August Issue of the ACCJ Journal

Doing Business the JMEC Way

International business talent meets entrepreneurial challenges to benefit foreign organizations in Japan

By Alena Eckelmann

Put aspiring executives and entrepreneurs from different countries and a range of business backgrounds into small competitive teams, give them real business problems in the Japanese market to consult on, and what you will get are creative and well-researched solutions presented in professional business plans that cost a fraction of the market price. This is the proposition that the Japan Market Expansion Competition (JMEC) has been offering for 17 years.

What started as a small operation by the Australian and New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Japan to help foreign companies enter the Japanese market, is now one of Tokyo’s best kept secrets for supporting foreign organizations’ business expansion in Japan and fostering the career development of foreign and Japanese young business professionals.

Since its inauguration in 1993, 848 participants from 45 countries have gone through the program. They have produced 159 business plans for JMEC project clients, some of which have become repeat JMEC clients. NRW Japan K.K., the Economic Development Agency of the German Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, was a project client for three consecutive years in JMEC 13, 14 and 15.

JMEC participants are often among the most international in Tokyo. This year’s 51 participants came from 20 countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as various European and Asian nations.

The 18 women and 33 men, average age 33, included not only sales and marketing professionals, accountants, recruiters, engineers and IT specialists, but also teachers, an architect and a designer. Most work for private companies or public organizations, but some already run their own business.

Holders of a bachelor’s degree with at least two years of work experience and good working English, may apply to join the JMEC program. Some participants this year, however, held higher qualifications. There were eight master’s degrees, three MBA’s and one Ph.D. At a participation cost of 125,000 yen, with lectures taking place on Saturdays, this is a time-and cost-efficient way to level up one’s career in Tokyo. Over the years, the number of Japanese applicants has been increasing. Forty-five percent of participants in JMEC 17 were Japanese.

Some of the JMEC participants are employees at JMEC sponsoring companies. Sending up to seven employees at no cost, depending on the level of sponsorship, is part of a sponsorship deal for JMEC’s 35 corporate sponsors. Hewlett-Packard Japan, a JMEC Platinum Sponsor for some years, has been using this career development option for their staff on a regular basis.

The seven-month JMEC training consists of a series of lectures and workshops followed by a teamwork phase when participants in groups of five or six research and write a professional business plan for an assigned JMEC project client. The document is submitted to the project client and the JMEC judges at the end of April, which is followed by oral presentations to both audiences. The judges then determine the winners of the competition, who are announced at the annual Awards Ceremony at the beginning of June.

“The JMEC process of lectures, team interaction, building a business plan and presenting in English offers a fantastic way to provide more opportunities to internationalize Japanese staff at ACCJ member companies,” says Thomas Whitson, a partner in Transaction Services at KPMG FAS Co., Ltd., and also Chairman of the JMEC Executive Committee.

Each year there are about 10 project clients, including SMEs, global corporations and NPOs. This year’s clients included businesses as diverse as multinational diversified technology company Sumitomo 3M Ltd., start-up Zava Holdings K.K., design and construction management services provider Lend Lease Japan, telecommunications provider PBXL and childhood-cancer charity The Tyler Foundation. Other project clients were Hafele Japan K.K., ERCO Lighting Ltd., TÜV SÜD Japan Ltd. and Honka Japan Inc.

Dr. Andreas Stange, president and CEO of TÜV SÜD Japan Ltd., said, “We experienced a highly motivated team, which brought us valuable insights into the Japanese market place.”

Mark Ferris, co-founder of The Tyler Foundation, said, “Our JMEC team’s business plan provided a lot of well-researched and carefully thought out information. Many suggestions we had already considered, but to see them presented by an external party, backed up by statistics and logic, was a powerful way to help us better understand our priorities.”

Jim Weisser, co-founder and CEO of PBXL K.K., agrees, “I strongly recommend JMEC to other organizations looking at expanding in the Japanese market. We received a mix of insights that we could not have found internally, as well as a ready-for-production business plan.”

“Our general impression was that the clients did get some very good ideas and good value,” says Rike Wootten, president of K.K. Gotairiku Partners, and one of three JMEC judges.

This year’s JMEC teams spent on average 1,400 hours on their plans, but four teams each spent more than 1,600 hours, with one close to 2,000 hours. JMEC participants and nearly 200 invited guests waited in anticipation for the announcement of the winners JMEC 17 at the annual Awards Ceremony on June 10 at the Tokyo American Club.

This year’s first place went to Team 8 who wrote a business plan for Sumitomo 3M Ltd.; second place was awarded to Team 3 and their business plan for TÜV SÜD Japan Ltd., and in third place came Team 4’s plan for Honka Japan Inc.

Mary Fidler, born and raised in Washington State, is a member of the first-prize winning team whose members each won an HP laptop and a one-year membership to the ACCJ, along with free admission to ACCJ events.

“We all felt very positive after the presentation to the judges, but I also knew that the competition was very strong. My expectation was to get as much out of the program as possible. Winning is pure icing on the cake,” says Fidler.

According to Fidler, her motivations for participating in JMEC were to broaden her knowledge of business practices in general and to gain more specific knowledge of business practices in Japan, as well as the opportunity to meet seasoned entrepreneurs and people like herself who start their own companies.

Fidler, who is a jewelry designer and the director of Mokumedo, a jewelry brand that incorporates ancient Japanese metal techniques with a modern design, now hopes to take her business to the next level.

“I joined JMEC because I wanted to learn how to write a business plan for the company I want to launch. Now I feel that I have a good grasp of all the aspects required to produce a plan so that I can move my business forward,” she adds.

Fidler’s four teammates have not only become new friends for life, but also her new business advisors.

“When you go through a competition like this together, the sense of accomplishment as a team is enormous. I have already warned my teammates that they will have to go over the business plan that I will create for my company and everyone seems eager to help me,” Fidler said.

Kansai City native Nic Swindler and his team won third-place and a two-night stay at any location of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Swindler moved from the U.S. to Japan in 2008 because he wanted to pursue an international career and use his Japanese. He works at the recruitment firm The Ingenium Group.

Asked about what he took away from JMEC, Swindler says new perspectives on how foreign companies in Japan operate and an understanding of the existing market potentials in Japan despite the economic turndown.

“Participating in JMEC was probably my best decision of 2010. I am sure that I will reap the rewards from the lessons learned and the friends made in years to come,” said Swindler.

“The speakers who joined us on several occasions really sparked some entrepreneurial interests which I never knew existed. I now see that business leaders’ success—and by extension that of companies—is due largely to focus and effort. A good business plan can give you focus, but without a concerted effort to execute the plan it is just a bunch of paper.”

British Chamber of Commerce in Japan President Philip T. Gibb, a JMEC judge, said, “The standard of the business plans and quality of the information and research this year was extremely high. The closeness of the final scores is testament to the effort put in by all participants.”

In his speech at the Awards Ceremony, judge Wootten revealed that the competition was very close, with a difference of just 1/3 of a percent between 1st and 2nd places, and 2nd and 3rd places. And the difference between 3rd and 4th places, in other words winning a prize or not, was just 1.27 percent.

For the third year in a row, the ACCJ, a JMEC sponsor, kindly donated prizes, such as memberships and event vouchers, to each member of the top three teams. At a reception, ACCJ President Mike Alfant introduced the winners to the benefits of an ACCJ membership and urged them to make good use of their prize.

“There was certainly excitement in the room. Not only had they won the JMEC competition, but they now have the opportunity to further their business networking by being part of such a valuable organization,” said Laura Loy, JMEC 17 Program Director.

“I want to take President Mike Alfant’s words to heart and really participate in as many events as possible to meet people and to get the most out of the membership. I enjoy active participation and hope to take part in some committee work,” said Fidler.

The ACCJ is one of 16 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan that support the JMEC program and, thereby, take advantage of the benefits that JMEC offers, including marketing and promotional opportunities to the wide JMEC network and the Tokyo business community at large.

This year’s JMEC participants were forced to postpone writing their business plans when the earthquake and tsunami struck northeast Japan on March 11. In an unprecedented move, the JMEC Executive Committee which consists of one representative from each supporting chamber decided to extend the deadline for handing in the final plans by two weeks.

“We are very proud of everyone who successfully completed the program this year. The events of 3/11 were a unique challenge for the teams, but after a little time off to attend to personal matters, they got themselves back on track,” said Loy.

Typically, proceeds from the raffle held at the annual JMEC Awards Ceremony are used for running the JMEC operation. However, this year it was decided to donate all raffle proceeds to Sendai-based Tohoku New Business Conference (TNB) to help earthquake-effected SMEs in Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.

Due to the generous donations by JMEC corporate sponsors and the kind individuals who bought raffle tickets at the event, JMEC was able to raise 575,000 yen. TNB is part of a national network of non-profit business organizations which, since 1988, has helped companies with business strategies, advice, surveys, information and events.

“JMEC is very pleased to donate the proceeds of its raffle to this very good cause that embodies the spirit of JMEC, which is to help mostly small to mid-sized companies thrive in Japan,” said Loy.

This article was first published in the ACCJ Journal on August 22, 2011.