The Japan Market Expansion Competition (JMEC) is a seven-month “mini MBA” for young executives to learn how to write a professional business plan. It is organised in association with the British and 17 other chambers of commerce in Japan, as well as a smorgasbord of luminary partners, lecturers, business leaders and advisers.
Alumni from the past 26 years include leaders and decision-makers from some of Tokyo’s best-known and successful firms, and it was none other than Robert Heldt, president of ACUMEN publisher Custom Media K.K.—himself a winner of JMEC 14 and of this year’s judges—who recommended I should give it a go. Co-workers and friends warned me that I’d have no weekends, no free time, no life and would probably end up falling out with those with whom I did end up spending time. They were right. But it was an experience that I would do again tomorrow if I could.
The first part of the programme comprises a series of lectures and workshops which provide a who’s who of Tokyo’s international business scene. The good parts include getting to learn so much, so quickly, from such experienced teachers while also having the opportunity to get to know them. Less popular was the 9am-sharp kick-off, with 8:50am sign-in. This made the morning coffee break a real lifeline. These coffee-shop-discovery expeditions—along with team activities and small breakout groups—helped us to forge lasting friendships!
The study days were intense, running until 5:30pm, but the end of classes was marked by programme directors Trond Varlid and Betsy Rogers delivering the closing proceedings with liquid refreshments and snacks to aid the weekly networking session. These were chances to meet new friends and uncover business opportunities. Having to restrict my Friday-night visits to the yakitori stand near Kamiyacho Station to study and prepare meant these moments came to signal the beginning of my weekends.
The second part is when everything changed. The 70-plus participants were split into teams of four or five that would spend the next five months devising a business plan for a single client. The day our teams were announced felt like a mixture of Christmas and exam results day. I was fortunate to be part of a team with familiar faces, and it was genuinely thrilling to open our assignment together and to meet our mentor, Jay Johannesen, whose experience, guidance and serenity in the face of conflict were to become an essential part of our lives.
Classic JMEC projects have involved a new market-entry product for Japan, whereas the task our team got was more unusual: to attract tourists to and remonetise a crumbling bubble-era ski resort in Yamagata Prefecture. Back in January, with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games around the corner and projections for huge numbers of inbound tourists, we were naturally ecstatic. But we soon learned an essential business lesson: always be prepared for the unexpected.
Hitting our stride
A real highlight for the team was getting to go on a reconnaissance trip to the hotel and explore the snow-drenched town of Yonezawa. Arriving at 5am to find that even the station was closed was pretty unfortunate. Being Scottish, I am used to bitter cold, deep sludge and heavy snow. Thankfully, it was the mildest winter in years, and there was a Seven-Eleven nearby where we managed to do our first bit of onsite research by interviewing the staff and dog walkers.
We really got to know each other on that trip, which would serve us well when the intensity increased. There’s nothing quite like thinking someone has fallen through a rotted floor and been consumed by a bear to cement a friendship.
I’m told many JMEC teams have a breakdown halfway through, and, true to form, we had our moments. Perhaps my team suffered this slightly more than others, relating to the fact that we ended up going through several weeks of feeling that our task was verging on the ridiculous—even impossible—as the coronavirus began to grip the country.
Soon enough, rather than meeting in person each Saturday, our weekends and evenings became extended conference calls dedicated to arguing the merits and demerits of giving up (this is possible and, in some cases, the best outcome for the client) or forging a new path forward.
In the end, the team went with the latter and came up with a plan for a fully branded line of packed salads, as well as a conversion of the property to a sustainable vertical farm. We were relieved that the client liked the idea, and the closing few weeks were highlighted by calls with him discussing the feasibility of our technical discoveries.
It turned out that my friends were right, and Golden Week was a fierce, sleepless battle in which we fought to condense our research into the plan. There was even a healthy dash of shouting at each other over Zoom calls. We owe Jay and our team consultant, Gabriela Mandrea, many thanks for the support they gave through this stage.
After submitting the plan, we had to immediately regroup, put our differences aside and work out how to finalise a presentation for the judges and the client.
We knew the competition was fierce, so were thrilled to be awarded second place at the virtual awards ceremony. That the client is putting our plan into action—with our ongoing advice—makes all the hard work worth it, and the prizes were icing on the cake of the JMEC experience.
The winning team was led by another Scot, Jonathan Ho, and three other Brits—Mark Stephen Horbury, Elliot Langston and Sophia Tsoi were involved—so it was a great night for the UK all round. Now we are all looking forward to finally meeting again once it becomes possible.
Team 12: Jonathan Ho, Yasuko Yoshino, Hiroshi Koyama, Takenori Nishimura, Hailan Huang
Project Client: AlgaEnergy—MareVitae® Cosmetics
Team 13: James Greer, Miyuki Sasaki, Toshifumi Suzuki, Bogna Baliszewska, Ngo Van Nguyen
Project Client: Sun Tamaniwa Farm
Team 3: Geoffrey Kayiira, Nonoka Tajiri, Shunsuke Akiyama, Noriko Kubodera, Javier Lopez Gimenez
Project Client: AlgaEnergy—Macami Food Condiments
Team 6: Amanda Marshall, Yuta Nagasaki, Tatsuro Oshimoto, Derrick Sugiyama
Project Client: Global Dreamers Lab
Best Market Research
Team 2: Xing Zhang, Shisa Hoshino, Hajime Watanabe, Jinghui ‘Sunny’ Huang|
Project Client: Herniamesh
Best Executive Summary
Team 8: Charles Feuchter, Yuka Miyazaki, Diah Wasis Wulandari, Yusa Kawauchi, Yuichi Fujimori
Project Client: Ardex