With companies in five countries, Yabashi Holdings is a construction, machinery and mining group that draws on the synergy between its Japanese and overseas locations to maximize value creation across its business areas.With companies in five countries, Yabashi Holdings is a construction, machinery and mining group that draws on the synergy between its Japanese and overseas locations to maximize value creation across its business areas.
Over the last 25-30 years, Japan has seen the rise of regional competitors who have replicated Japanese manufacturing processes but doing so at a cheaper labor cost, pushing Japan out of mass markets. However, we still see that many Japanese firms are leaders when it comes to niche B2B fields. In your opinion, how have Japanese firms been able to maintain this leadership despite the stiff price competition?
The Japanese market is conservative, and the products that are produced by Japanese companies are the result of the high levels of education that the people that work on the gemba possess. This results in high-quality products. However, when it comes to value creation, I do not think that Japanese education is doing enough. Therefore, I believe that we need to work in tandem with people from other countries.
I would like to introduce Ms Chau. She is Vietnamese, and her mother and I worked together 20 years ago, and now she has joined our company.
My name is Chau. I study in Oita Prefecture. To be honest, working for this company for me was almost like my destiny thanks to my mother. I had a good opportunity to study for four years in Japan, and I got the chance to come here to work. My Japanese language skills were not that good, so at first, it was stressful to work at a Japanese company. However, all the leaders of this company are welcoming, especially when it comes to foreigners. Our company has expanded to other countries such as Vietnam and Myanmar, for example. I think that the company is a good place for not only Japanese people to understand more about foreign cultures but also for foreigners to understand the true value of Japan and Japanese people.
In our last interview, you said that it was not only important to find workers domestically, but it was also important to have a global perspective. Is this still your strategy moving forward to combat the effects of Japan’s demographic situation?
First of all, you need to get married. For women to continue working, we need to create the kind of environment that allows them to do so. In the past, female employees tended to resign from their jobs after they get married or have children to concentrate on nurturing children etc. However, due to the aging population and hence decreasing workforce volume, Japan as a whole started to encourage companies including SMEs like us to prepare an employee-friendly environment where mothers can continue with full-time employment even when they have small children. Thus we need to create a more employee-friendly environment as well as work together with global human resources like Chau san. I recommend people to have children, as there are many things you only understand after becoming parents. As a management member, I thought that once I entered this company, I should get married, as it is important to understand your employees who have wives and families. Unless you get married, you cannot fully understand them. That is important for management.
People in Vietnam treat family members nicely and value them. I thought my request to Ms Chau’s mother was quite demanding. However, she grew up to be a wonderful person. It paid off.
One of the challenges that many companies face is bringing their Japanese business mindset overseas, as there are different business cultures, and this can cause clashes. As someone who has international experience, what role do you play to help bridge the gap between countries?
I always tell my employees when they are going on business trips abroad that even if it only takes seven days to finish the work, they should stay for ten days or more to get to know the culture of the area. Ms Chau’s mother is good at English, but not good at Japanese. Unfortunately, I am not good at English and was only able to speak Japanese with her. What happened frequently was when an interpreter said something, her mother said “No! He would never say something like that.” It turned out that she was right, and the interpreter was wrong. That happened many times. I truly believe that human beings can understand and show empathy to each other even if they don't fully understand their words.
The importance of understanding each other’s culture and background, and working together does not only come into effect when working in foreign countries, but similar experiences can occur within Japan as well. After we affiliated ourselves with a company in Nara Prefecture, I came to understand how wonderful the women in Nara were as well. The women working in Nara were dispatch workers. However, when they started working in our factory, they did lots of kaizen and made improvements to the workplace, which meant they were able to work there comfortably. Our customers were surprised by the improvements at our factory and asked us what kind of education we gave to our employees there. I told them that the people from Nara are dedicated to their work. One of the ladies who took this role at our factory in Nara originally started as a dispatched worker, before becoming a full-time employee. Now she has the potential to become a manager there someday. At her first interview, I remember her saying that “people these days are not ambitious enough”. The reason why she was so committed to improvement was that she was ambitious enough to do her job as well as her male colleagues were. This was well received by our customers.
As part of your timber business, you have the Yabashi Home, a brand of houses where you take care of everything from initial construction to ground & site surveys, and design and you even create the gardens. Why should potential prospects invest in constructing a Yabashi Home? What are some of their advantages?
As you know, the current situation is tough. Prefabricated housing is growing rapidly in the Japanese market. However, what we have is our high quality. Material things alone are not enough. What I always want is to provide a spiritually rich and fulfilling life. You can have this lifestyle in a house where you feel relaxed and where you can see the transition of the seasons. For our customers to have such a life, it involves many aspects from the design of the house itself and the garden for proposing such a fulfilling life as well as feeling safe and secure to live in the house, which involves construction work and quality of the building materials. We would like to thoroughly ensure that our customers would be able to have a spiritually fulfilling life so that is why we need to take part in all stages of the home-making process. This fulfilling house is not always high-end housing. Rather, we want to provide housing with hospitality and that is how we can appeal to the customers.
I want to utilize our housing exhibition site and hold a festival where I can combine our agriculture business and our housing business to produce a synergistic effect. The slogan we will use is “ A spiritually fulfilling life.”
Concerning your agricultural business, what are your hopes for this in the next 5–10 years?
Our agricultural business is a difficult field. We emit CO2, so therefore we must do agriculture. I do not expect big success in the agriculture business. However, I want us to think about what makes agriculture possible in Japan and consider how we can continue our agriculture business.
As limestone is a finite resource, the mines that you are operating will eventually run out of resources to mine. What are you doing in preparation for this eventual reality, and what will become of the mine in the aftermath?
We do understand that there will be an end someday. However, we can utilize the site as an agricultural site or make it into a natural park. To be able to do so, we need the right agricultural technologies and skills. For that sake, we are focused on agriculture and planting. I am Japanese, however, I have a business in Vietnam digging mines. That means that I am excavating the resources of other countries. Therefore, we should bring technologies to the area and help improve agriculture there as well. We need to use clean and green technology to do so.
Are there any other resources that you will shift your attention to post-limestone?
Currently, we are only committed to mining limestone. However, if by chance other minerals are found in places that I am connected to, then maybe we will make use of them. They are natural resources, however, and I am not willing to dig for natural resources only for the sake of money. Many people dig rare earth for this purpose, but I am not that kind of person. If there are requests for us to excavate a site, then of course we will consider getting involved. However, we would only consider the possibility of these projects if there are aspects of social contribution to the local area like encouraging safer working environments etc. Other than that, it would be against our beliefs. We are currently hiring people with geological backgrounds and enriching our knowledge for the future.
As part of your metal division, you manufacture bespoke machinery for companies. Can you provide us with an example of a technology you created to suit your client’s needs?
The processing-related machines that we develop are machines that improve the productivity of the production line. We first try the machine at our site. You may have heard about our dust collector. We invented this machine when we were processing limestone in Vietnam. We wanted to crush it to under 4 millimeters. There were water content specifications. Therefore, when we wanted to crush it into powder, a lot of dust was produced. Although the location was in the middle of the mountains, and nobody complained, it was a shame that people had to work in such a dusty environment. We decided to make the dust collector ourselves to improve the working conditions of the people who worked there.
When our factories or production sites need something, rather than buy it, our approach has been to make it ourselves. These inventions can then be used for basic functionalities by other companies. That was how we expanded our metal business and bespoke machines.
Yabashi Holdings is composed of many different companies. Do you have any further plans to grow the group?
As we understand, as an SME-sized company, our core strength is having companies in different countries and different industries but working hard for “Monozukuri” under the same principle. These variations trigger a synergic effect in manufacturing and we believe the more we understand each other culturally and business-wise, the larger the synergic effect. That is why we want to present an example of multicultural cohabitation. First, I want to create something symbolic for this project. I want to build a canteen for our company that serves the traditional and most popular dishes of the countries of each of our employees. I want our employees to be able to taste these different cuisines. For example, I like Vietnamese food. I believe that if you like the food, you come to like the country too. I think the banh mi is the highest level of combination between French culture and Vietnamese culture. Japanese are good at doing this too.
The last time we interviewed Yabashi Holdings, you told us that you were looking for partners in Taiwan, but you were also working with a Swedish firm when it came to biodegradable plastics. How did these partnerships turn out for you? Are you currently looking for similar partnership opportunities in overseas markets?
We were making the utmost effort to establish a company in Vietnam that makes powder from limestone. A member of the Vietnamese Ministry of Planning and Investment introduced this Swedish company to us and suggested that we should talk to them. We did not pay this person. However, he observed our activities and gave us his support.
Imagine that we come back in 10 years to interview you again: what message would you like to say to your employees?
Our family has family teachings. One of these teachings is to do good things behind the scenes where people are not watching. That was what my father always told me, and I tell this to my son and my employees. We always need to think about what makes human beings happy. The company should not only be profitable; it should serve society by doing good things that will benefit society. That is important to me. I believe that it is the permanent challenge and mission for Yabashi. By doing good things for society, our company will prosper in the end.
What I want is for the people of Vietnam to think that Yabashi came to excavate limestone mines but ended up improving the safety of the site and that we helped the people in Vietnam to become richer from these resources. That is what I want to aim for. Although we are doing business, and not philanthropy, the backbone of a business is really about contributing to society by doing beneficial things even if they are behind the scenes.