S'poreans take the lead as Japanese firms go global

Mr Alain Ong, who leads Pokka Singapore's international arm, overhauled the company's management structure and human resource policies, among other things.
Mr Alain Ong, who leads Pokka Singapore's international arm, overhauled the company's management structure and human resource policies, among other things.PHOTO: POKKA INTERNATIONAL

TOKYO • Some Japanese firms, including beverage maker Pokka and delivery service Yamato, are tapping Singaporeans to lead their overseas expansions.

Mr Alain Ong, who joined Pokka Singapore in 2006, leads its international arm, which markets Pokka's beverages to more than 60 countries, from China to Cyprus, and Maldives to Myanmar.

Over at Yamato, which entered the Singapore market in 2010, Mr Richard Chua heads the Asia division, which is expanding into South-east Asian capitals such as Yangon and Ho Chi Minh City, as well as India's Gujarat state and Chennai.

The two men said the trend of hiring local - rather than deploying Japanese - is due to greater awareness that Japanese management methods do not necessarily work well outside Japan.

Mr Ong said Pokka had initially struggled to establish itself against rivals such as F&N and Yeo's when it entered the Singapore market in 1977.

 
 

One reason for this, he believes, was the company's conservative culture, which gave him "quite a culture shock".

"During my first few management meetings, I was perhaps the only one who boldly raised issues and pushed for changes," he said. Calling himself a "non-conformist", he said he overhauled the company's management structure and human resource policies, among other things.

He also pushed through ideas, such as forming a vending machine division which the top brass had previously disapproved of, and acting as a distributor for brands such as Redbull and Evian. As a result, the company grew by five times between 2006 and 2016, he said.

Mr Chua noted the huge demand for Singaporean and regional talent in Japanese companies looking to expand, including Yamato, which is pursuing merger and acquisition opportunities in South-east Asia.

"Many Japanese sent abroad face difficulties in understanding and adapting to the local culture and business practices," he said, adding that costs and language barriers are also issues. "The trend is continuing, and localisation will be faster and move to higher levels of management."

Walter Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2017, with the headline 'S'poreans take the lead as Japanese firms go global'. Print Edition | Subscribe