Suntory acquired US company Beam in 2014, since which it jointly developed and launched new gins and whiskeys. Overseas sales are now 42.7% of Suntory’s turnover, compared to 25.2% in 2013 and the merger is generally thought to have been a success, according to the Nikkei Business magazine.
Suntory took on a mountain of debt to buy Beam. Suntory President Niinami Takeshi felt in 2014 that Beam’s attitude was complacent, considering the pressures Suntory was under. They were making personnel decisions without any regard to Suntory’s wishes. Beam may have felt that as Suntory’s spirits business was folded into the new Beam Suntory, this meant Beam had the right to do as it pleased.
The three elements Suntory’s President Niinami felt were crucial to post merger integration were:
1. Parent company should make personnel decisions
Niinami transferred the authority to nominate directors of Beam Suntory to Japan HQ, set up a new compensation committee which he chaired, and sent an internal auditor from Suntory to Beam. The CEO of Beam Suntory at the time, Matt Shattock, was not pleased, but Niinami was firm, saying “we are the owners”. Niinami says this was the biggest reason for the successful merger. He made sure that he also listened to Beam executives and ultimately replaced Shattock with Albert Baladi, seeing him as someone who could drive Beam Suntory’s growth in Asia (and indeed they have just announced they will be making whiskey in India soon).
2. Be based near the customer
Baladi clearly won over Niinami by understanding the importance of the Gemba – the shopfloor, the coalface. Beam Suntory’s headquarters was moved to central Chicago, in a district full of bars and restaurants, from a suburb an hour outside the city. Again, this did not thrill the then CEO Matt Shattock, whose 15 minute drive into work by car turned into a 1.5 hour commute. “It took 2 years to persuade him”, says Niinami.
Being focused on the gemba was not just about the headquarters. Beam previously had frowned upon inefficiencies such as visiting retail outlets frequently to understand what products most matched them. Its emphasis was on short term profits. Niinami changed this by sending several experienced Suntory sales and marketing people to Beam Suntory. One was Takeuchi Jun, who insisted on visiting high class bars and restaurants in Chicago, introducing Beam Suntory products, to increase the fanbase. He was adamant to local employees that sales for home consumption would increase as a result.
Usually, hearing that sales and marketing people from Japan headquarters are coming to an overseas subsidiaries to change the way Western marketing works would make me nervous. Sales and marketing (if it exists at all) are very different in Japan to Western countries, but it seems to have worked. For example, Suntory was able to successfully introduce the Highball Tower machine to bars in the USA – which makes a cocktail of whiskey (in this case Suntory’s Toki) and sparkling water.
3. Return to craftsmanship
Along with gemba, Suntory introduced the Japanese concept of monozukuri. Niinami was shocked that when he visited Jim Beam’s main distillery in Kentucky in 2016, to see that the workers were on strike, angry with management based in the headquarters an hour’s flight away. Bourbon sales were doing well globally, and the management asked the distillery to increase production without anything being changed at the distillery. Temporary staff were taken on with employment terms which the existing workers were unhappy with.
Niinami thought this “monitoring from above” approach was misguided, and removed the factory chief, bringing in the production director from Japan. Distilling space and warehousing were increased with a $500m investment in one year.
Suntory also encouraged joint development of new drinks such as Legent. I noticed in Europe the sake-like gin Roku from Suntory was launched in 2017 (and I’m a big fan). Will they also be moving Beam Suntory in the UK from suburban Uxbridge to somewhere with a night life like Soho?
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