My Japanology / Danone exec values Japanese emphasis on time and patience

Tomoko Hagimoto/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Luis Faria E Maia, president of Danone Japan Co., speaks to The Japan News at the company’s office in Meguro Ward, Tokyo.

The Japan News After working in six countries including Russia and Brazil, Luis Faria E Maia came to Japan 3½ years ago to take up his current position as president of Danone Japan Co. (see below). Last year, the 47-year-old Portuguese executive wrote an article about what he had learned in Japan, posting it on the website LinkedIn. The Japan News recently sat down with him to ask about his vision as well as the business strategy of his company, which has established its products as part of many people’s diets.

Q: What was your purpose in writing the article?

Luis Faria E Maia: There’s no specific purpose per se, it was just that LinkedIn is a good forum to share my opinion of what I think, from my three years of experience. And if it can be of added value for newcomers coming to Japan — [it’s] an honor. If I can help people in getting accustomed to the culture and making the best of their time in Japan, it would be a great achievement. This is my seventh country with Danone. So looking at the differences of the countries, as I say here, there is no good culture or bad culture, there is different culture. Just what are the different points for Japan?

Q: Your article mentioned a book titled “Bushido: The Soul of Japan” by Inazo Nitobe.

A: It was one of the first books I read before I came here. I was looking at bushido, the way of the samurai. This has been one of my points on previous assignments, looking at the history of a country. Because the history of a country tells you a lot about the country and how the people behave and what people value.

Q: What is the most impressive thing in the book?

A: I think the one which impressed me most was the art of perfection. Especially in the current world, which links to another point: time and patience. If you look around the world it is accelerating fast. I see it with my kids; when they want something they want it today. I give the example, in my text, about wine. In the past it was simple for us to age wine 10, 15 years. Today we want to buy wine and we want the wine already to be aged and to be good today. In Japan it’s still very much you take your time to do things perfectly. Good things just need time.

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  • Tomoko Hagimoto/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Luis Faria E Maia talks about Danone’s products and strategy, saying, “We have the Danone Institute of Japan Foundation, and together with the government we try to promote the healthy breakfast habit.”

Q: Is the concept of patience good for business?

A: Yes, if you look at it from a perspective of trying to build something in the long term. If I take the case of Danone in Japan, we are not here for the next one year, two years, we are here to build something for the next 20, 30, 40 years. The actions you do depend on the time frame you put them in. Now, if you optimize everything for the next six months, there’s a lot of things we would not do. If you put them in the next 20, 30 years, it gives you a horizon and looking at things from a broader perspective. I’ll give you a concrete example. When we set up the recycling center [to separate waste in order to allow outside vendors to purchase recycled waste products] within a factory in Tatebayashi, [Gunma Prefecture], where we work to reduce the losses and make sure that what we would call garbage is not garbage, but we valorize it to help Japan reduce losses. This is not a short-term project; this is something we do because we’re here to stay for the long term.

Q: What do you think of the seniority system here?

A: I think there are big challenges in the seniority system. There is big respect for the senpai [senior] or sensei [teacher] relationship, which is very appreciated, because you learn from your sensei. But the negative side of this is when you want to empower young people. Often I’ve heard young people say, “I cannot grow, I don’t have space in the organization because I need to respect my sensei.” Here is where the balance comes [between] seniority [and] openness, and I think the challenge is even for sensei to give space for newcomers, because they see the world from a different perspective. It’s one of the challenges for Japan to give the young generation the chance to show [their potential]. How many good ideas are there? It’s not just the older people who have good ideas, the young people also have good ideas. Now, the respect for seniority can sometimes lead to blocking these good ideas. That’s where it has two sides, which need to be balanced.

‘Aren’t you too young?’

Q: According to the article you wrote, you have experienced how the virtue of physical age is important for people.

A: Yes, when I arrived here, I was 3½ years younger [than I am now]. When I met the shachos [presidents] of other companies, especially Japanese companies, they looked at me when I walked in and they said, “Aren’t you too young?” because they would expect the shacho to have gray hair already, to be older. And I think that’s one of the points where we need to be careful. We see it very much in Danone. There are a lot of young people full of good ideas, full of potential. I think if there is something I would like to see change in Japan it is forums where young people can bring up new ideas and this different point of view.

Q: How can you hear about new ideas in your company?

A: We have a tool, which is Workplace, which enables anyone in a company to really express their opinion and to raise up their opinions close to me or the directors. It’s like a Facebook platform, it also has a chat platform, so anyone can raise [ideas], and there have been ideas brought up in the past.

Q: Could you tell me about one of your products?

A: If I take one randomly, if I take this product here, which is Oikos … This was one product we launched, it was the concept of healthy [snacking]. Yogurt is still very much for breakfast consumption, and with this product we try to address the snacking habits of Japanese. There’re a lot of people who snack, and not always do they snack on healthy food. So here we bring an option which is high in protein, so it’s filling without having fat and without having a lot of sugar. It has a unique texture, a unique taste, so it’s really us trying to contribute to the Japanese market by addressing a need for healthy snacking.

Q: Is it available worldwide?

A: No, the recipe is a U.S. recipe which we adapted to Japan. But this brand, Oikos, you can find the brand in the U.S., you can find the brand with different names in Europe. So it’s very much up to the country to adapt recipes. Food is local, so you need to adapt food to the local environment.

Q: As a food company, how can you address the super-aging society?

A: There are different ways of looking at that aspect. We have a product [called] Densia. It’s a product that caters to people 50-plus. Why? It addresses the calcium deficiency which exists in this country, especially in the elderly population. So this is one of the products we have for the elderly to address osteoporosis. It’s not intended as a cure, but it’s helping to contribute to calcium intake. So that’s one of the products.

We also have this [product, called Bio]. We know that gastrointestinal issues increase with age, especially for women. So this product has worldwide scientific evidence, and a lot of research is coming out of our research center of Paris on how it helps with gastrointestinal disturbances. Once more, it’s not designed to treat the symptoms, it’s designed to make life more comfortable in a healthy lifestyle.

The other thing we are seeing also in the aging society is this country always had a very clear relationship to where food came from. I was in the countryside [last year]. You see it when people tend their fields; they were collecting and preparing their fields for winter, but they know where the food comes from. But in recent decades a lot of people have lost the connection with the countryside, and we are seeing this connection coming back. So one of the things we are doing also is making sure that our products use ingredients that are fully natural, that we write where the ingredients are coming from, so on some of our products it’s very clear where the ingredients are sourced from, and wherever possible from Japan.

Q: Have you noticed any dietary changes that have taken place in Japan?

A: There’s a bigger interest in where my food is coming from, what is in my food. And you see farmers’ markets, you see more organic development, food companies saying where the ingredients are coming from, especially with produce. This is definitely a global trend.

Dashi in his suitcase

Q: Are there any differences between Japanese customers and other customers in terms of the way of thinking?

A: Yes, there are clear differences, one is sizing. The standard size for yogurt across the world would be 125 grams. Here it’s 75 grams. And one packet is just enough. One good habit that Japanese have, I forget the Japanese word, which is the rule of only eating 80 percent —

Q: Hara hachi bu, or to eat moderately.

A: If you go to America you see many more obese people than you see here, so that’s one of the differences here. I think also in terms of quality of packaging. Danone Japan sets standards within Danone in terms of quality demands, in terms of product, in terms of packaging, in terms of appearance. Because the visual impression of what’s inside is as important as the actual product. This would be different also. And overall sugar levels are lower than the rest of the world. Even though we are still decreasing sugar levels, they’re already lower than the rest of the world.

Q: What is your favorite food in Japan?

A: It depends on the season. Now it’s winter, I love a good miso soup. I like a good mushroom and miso. It’s cold, so it warms you up from the inside, and it’s fermented like yogurt.

Q: Before visiting Japan, had you already tasted miso in other countries?

A: Not the real miso soup. I always say this to my friends when they come here, and for some I even took miso paste, I took dashi with me. What we eat outside of Japan — there’s no dashi in it, no miso in it, the kombu probably is not really fresh. It’s the same name, but it’s not the same.

Q: Can I expect to eat miso yogurt in the future?

A: We tried it out. It’s not beyond our scope. We would really like to bridge [the gap on] how do we bring Japanese ingredients and Japanese food culture into yogurt? So, miso yogurt sounds distasteful, but maybe in one or two years it will not be. If it can be done in Japan, I would be more than happy to see it.

This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Takeshi Nagata.

■ Profile

Born in Portugal in 1970. After graduating from Universidade Catolica Portuguesa, Faria E Maia entered GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare in the country in 1993, then moved to Colgate-Palmolive. His career at Danone started in 1999 when he joined Danone Portugal as marketing media manager. Taking on important positions in Brazil, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Russia and Tunisia, Faria E Maia assumed his current position in 2014. He speaks several languages fluently including German and English.

■ Danone Japan Co.

Global company Danone entered the Japanese market in 1980, establishing Ajinomoto Danone Co. It started a fresh dairy products business and launched Petit Danone in 1982, and two years later began a drinking water business as well. The current company was established in 2007, becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Danone. It launched Oikos in 2015. The number of its employees was around 360 as of December 2016. The parent company has operations in more than 130 markets around the world and its global sales in fiscal 2016 was €21.9 billion. Its head office is located in Paris.Speech

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