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Fresh thinking on Japan

Fresh thinking on Japan

Charlotte, NC--While Japan has struggled over the last decade, the career of one young North Carolina man--Doug McNeill--has blossomed, in large part because of his avid interest in Japan.

When he was studying computer information systems at Appalachian State in the late '80s, McNeill noticed that a lot of his friends were having trouble finding jobs. So to make himself more marketable, he began studying Japanese, earning enough credits for a minor in the language by the time he graduated in 1991.

Prior to graduation, he also launched a letter-writing campaign to some 40 Japanese families who were friends of a North Carolina professor he knew. Would one of them be willing to take him in while he looked for a job?

His persistence paid off. Thanks to his trusty American Express card and the kindness of one Japanese family, Doug made it to Japan and was getting interviews with companies like Sony, TDK, and Hitachi barely 10 days after his college graduation.

Soon he landed a job with HitachiZosen Information Systems, where he helped integrate the company's CAD/CAM software with robotics, solid- modeling, and production-control software supplied by partner vendors. Besides development work, he trained distributors from countries throughout Asia.

While his knowledge and appreciation of Japanese language and culture increased, life for Doug was hardly exotic. Home was a tiny room in a dormitory subsidized by Hitachi in the far reaches of Tokyo, and the commute took three hours out of every day. "A good time was getting together with my Japanese friends for beer and some Yakitori," recalls McNeill.

Even so, that early Japanese experience provided a big boost to McNeill's career. Following the Hitachi job, he landed a position with Okuma, returning to North Carolina to work on control systems for a machine tool factory. Next, he found himself traveling back to Japan frequently to develop business for a new employer, Lutze, a German firm specializing in field bus and other I/O products.

Last year, after a four-year stint with Lutze, McNeill joined American Precision Industries, which quickly sent him to Japan for a six-month stint to assess the market potential for its diverse motion control products. He also hired a new general manager for API Motion's Japanese operation.

Having spent most of the 1990s working with Japanese companies, McNeill has come away with a good perspective on what it takes for foreign companies to be successful there. Among his suggestions:

Develop a thorough knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors in the Japanese market.

  • Introduce innovative products that offer a clear technical advantage.

  • Provide systems solutions--combining two or more products--that will make you more price-competitive.

  • Stock a full inventory of products. "This is vital," says McNeill, "because the Japanese pride themselves in short lead times."

  • Make sure your products meet the full range of international standards, since your Japanese customers will be exporting throughout the world.

  • And if you are supplying end users in Japan, put your documentation in Japanese--or risk being rejected by plant operations personnel. "Many Japanese design engineers speak English, but not the maintenance people," says McNeill.

McNeil believes that the Japanese are becoming more open to American products and are gaining a new appreciation for the improved quality of U.S. goods. Along with the longstanding Japanese respect for U.S. innovation, he predicts these changes will boost the prospects of American firms in Japan as it climbs out of recession.

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