From its humble beginnings as a metal nameplate shop in 1949, Kakihara Meiban Seisakusho Co., Ltd. has transformed into a comprehensive nameplate manufacturer, adapting to design diversification and quality demands.
It is just past the 10-year anniversary of your company’s establishment. As a Japanese company operating in a foreign market, what would you say have been the major takeaways or lessons you’ve learned in the last 10 years operating in Thailand? What will be the next steps in your international development?
In Thailand, 90% of our customers are Japanese companies that have a strong presence in Japan, commonly referred to as Nikkei companies. Many of these firms receive products from their Thai affiliates with the same level of quality as those in Japan. Approximately 15 years ago, Japanese companies began expanding abroad, particularly in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Given the growing manufacturing opportunities in the region, it became inevitable for us to establish overseas operations.
Our Thai factory was established in 2012, but five years prior, we initiated a consignment with a major Japanese manufacturer's factory in Thailand, where we began producing products. In the process, we had an opportunity to establish a base in Thailand as Kakihara Meiban Group. However, they faced challenges in finding success in the Thai market. Leveraging our expertise in nameplates for construction machinery, machine tools, and agricultural machinery, we aimed to create a significant impact in the market by fostering synergistic effects.
If you review our brochure, you'll notice that our customers mainly consist of companies involved in industrial machinery, construction machinery, or agricultural machinery, rather than automotive or electronics companies.
During the late 20th century, Japanese manufacturing experienced a decline, while countries like China, Korea, and Taiwan emerged as dominant players. Thankfully, our target markets are not focused on mass-production electronics, which shielded us from major business disruptions. I initially aspired to enter the automotive market, specializing in producing nameplates. However, the Japanese automotive industry's Keiretsu structure presented challenges. This hierarchical structure involves several tiers of companies, with top-tier corporations like Toyota and Honda responsible for final assembly. Nameplate companies, on the other hand, exclusively manufacture nameplates for specific companies. Our business model revolves around catering to production lines capable of planning their production process. We work closely with customers to provide nameplates that seamlessly integrate into their designated production schemes, allowing us to accurately anticipate demand.
You mentioned that 90% of your clients in Thailand are Japanese companies that have factories in Thailand, and we often see when Japanese firms first go overseas they usually cater to Nikkei companies but over time they start supplying to local companies as well as other multinationals that have factories in the region. Is this something that you're looking to do also? Are you looking to have more local and multinational firms as customers?
As you rightly pointed out, the next step for us involves tapping into the growing sales opportunities with Japanese companies, and we are currently fortunate to experience this positive trend. In fact, the past year marked our most successful sales performance on record, resulting in record-breaking profits for our company. This impressive growth has further solidified our belief in the enormous potential for expansion overseas and capturing the attention of more Nikkei companies.
Given the strategic presence of our customers' affiliated factories in the Philippines, Malaysia, and India, we enjoy the advantage of streamlined product exports from Thailand to these countries. This seamless export process facilitates our endeavors to serve a broader international market.
It is our view that Japanese manufacturing is living a very exciting time. Over the past three years, we have seen supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as continued tensions from the China-US decoupling situation. As such, many multinationals are looking to diversify their suppliers with a focus on reliability. This is where Japan can enter because it is a country known for its advanced technology and its trustworthiness, reliability, and customer-centric approach. Additionally, with the weakened JPY, Japan has never been more cost-effective for foreign clients. Many will argue this is a very opportune moment for Japanese makers like yourselves. Do you agree with this premise, and if so why, and if not, why not?
I do agree that there have been significant opportunities for Japanese companies in the current macroeconomic climate, particularly with the depreciation of the JPY. While this has been beneficial for exporting, it is crucial to recognize that the overall capabilities of a company may not have inherently improved solely due to currency fluctuations. The depreciation of the JPY is an external factor, subject to potential reversals in the future. As responsible Japanese companies, we must maintain competitiveness beyond currency advantages. To achieve this, our company is actively concentrating on enhancing our technological capabilities and innovating unique, value-added products. By doing so, we aim to establish a sustainable advantage regardless of currency trends.
What is the uniqueness of your company and what makes you the choice of many very recognizable and established international brands?
I often ponder the same question myself. The mindset and perspective of massive companies differ greatly from ours. For example, the labels you see on the seats of Shinkansen bullet trains and the information labels inside of cars are used to convey important information. Other applications include industrial labels which provide safety critical information. Acknowledging our competency and effectively communicating our strengths has proven challenging. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that our essence lies in our ability to offer a diverse array of labels and propose innovative ideas to our clients.
Nameplates, for instance, encompass a wide range of types, such as stickers, metal plates, and screen printing, among others. A distinct advantage of our company is our capacity to cater to all types of labels, making us unique in this regard. Our non-central Japan origin has played a significant role in shaping this strength. Hailing from a more rural area, beyond the sphere of Greater Tokyo's influence, we adopted a customer-centric approach, obliging every single request we received. This ethos enabled us to not only satisfy the industries we serve but also continually expand the options we offer to our valued customers.
How are you facing the challenges associated with Japan’s declining population and how are you making sure that all of this expertise and uniqueness of your firm is maintained and passed on to future generations?
Japan is facing the challenges of worldwide aging demographics and negative birth rates, and as a Japanese company, these facts have posed significant obstacles in terms of knowledge transfer to the next generation. To keep up with the changing times, we are determined to follow in the footsteps of other companies by embracing the introduction of IT tools and digitalization. This modern approach is crucial in reducing the demand for labor-intensive tasks. Despite this digital shift, many analog processes remain integral to our production lines, as our work demands a certain level of sensitivity that can only be provided by human workers. Delicate tasks like color handling require a human touch, and we recognize that human engineers play a vital role in infusing our products with excitement and character, a result of their accumulated experience over the years. The intangible "x-factor" they bring to our work is challenging to quantify, making it even more critical to find ways to pass down this invaluable knowledge to future generations.
At the heart of our business lies the creation of final products that elicit specific atmospheres and emotions, appealing to the sensibilities of our customers. We find immense value in captivating the younger generation with our labels and signage, sparking excitement and interest in what we offer. While advancements in machinery are essential, our true strength lies in the emotional responses our products can generate. Fashioning a connection with our customers through meaningful experiences is at the core of our mission.
A theme so far in this interview has been your ability to adapt and respond to customer requests, and one of the requests we are seeing in the printing industry these days is sustainably produced products, especially when it comes to inkjet printers and digital printing. Of course, there must be a lot of challenges when it comes to this kind of request, for example, water-based inks fade in the sun easily. When you get this kind of request for more sustainable products from your clients, how can you comply with their requests?
Digital printing has undeniably emerged as a prominent trend in the industry, rapidly gaining popularity among customers. At our company, we actively advocate for the adoption of digital printing due to its environmentally friendly nature. Not only is it less prone to defects, but it also minimizes ink consumption, making it a sustainable choice. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that ink conversion remains a complex task, and customer concerns regarding environmental impact prompt us to concentrate on refining our ink and printing methods to reduce harm to the environment.
Amidst our endeavors, we have established partnerships with renowned international brands, including a major construction equipment manufacture
r. As an EU-based company, we operate under stringent regulations governing the ingredients used in our inks. By collaborating closely with reputable ink manufacturers, we can ensure that the inks we employ do not contain any hazardous materials, aligning with our commitment to environmental responsibility.
Your company has stated that you want to become the “Global Nameplate Authority,” so can you tell us a little more about your strategy to achieve this goal?
Is it a matter of finding the right partners or working with more internationally renowned brands like Caterpillar? How will you achieve this dream?
To grasp the concept of Global Nameplate Authority, it is essential to realize that it goes beyond being a major company or a dominant player. The Global Nameplate Authority concept is not about becoming a major player or the top leader. Instead, it centers on delivering products that surpass customer expectations, offering comprehensive solutions that elevate their businesses. The nameplate, a crucial component added in the final stages of production, represents the ultimate finishing touch in the assembly process. We deeply comprehend the transformative power of a nameplate; it infuses life into a product, causing it to come alive and flourish. Our aim is to cherish this essence and persistently provide our customers with the finest nameplates, enriching their products and experiences.
Imagine that we come back and have this interview again on the very last day of your presidency. What goals or dreams would you like to have achieved by the time you are ready to pass the baton onto the next generation of Kakihara Meiban executives?
While being interviewed today in English, what I feel the most is that I should have studied English more diligently when I was younger (said in jest). I want to feel like my company is almost a cosmetic company, applying makeup to products and brands around the world, highlighting their best features so that they may shine in the bright spotlights.