I was asked to speak at a Portugal-Japan Investment event at the end of 2019. Initially I was worried about what I could say as I was not sure there would be much that would interest Japanese companies in Portugal. The population is only around 10 million and multinationals mostly either have a small sales office there, or cover it from Spain.
For British people Portugal is mainly seen as a nice place to go on holiday – for golf or the beaches or to enjoy the rich history, culture and port wine. There are also some similarities in temperament between Portugal, the UK and even Japan – a gentility, understatement and a slight melancholy which contrasts with bigger European nations like Spain or France or Germany.
Portugal is the UK’s longest standing ally – for more than 650 years – and the Portuguese Prime Minister and officials who spoke at the event emphasised that they saw Portugal as an additional base for Japanese companies, rather than an alternative to the UK.
Portugal has strengths in traditional sectors such as food, apparel and automotive manufacturing. For example, Toyota has a joint venture with Caetano, who also have a joint venture with Mitsui, manufacturing electric buses. There are also some emerging strengths, such as energy and IT services, particularly business process outsourcing.
The two Japanese companies that spoke on the panel with me were Fujitsu, who employ nearly 2000 people in Portugal now, providing business process outsourcing and IT services and Marubeni, who have invested in various energy projects.
All the presentations emphasised the obvious advantages of Portugal. Firstly, that the economic and political risks are low. Portugal has recovered well from the Lehman Shock recession, does not have much populism, and the coalition government has been in power for over 5 years.
Secondly, Portugal has a well-educated (particularly in science, technology and maths), multilingual workforce. And thirdly, as well as being in the EU, it also provides a bridge to Portuguese speaking markets, most notably Brazil.
But there was an additional reason, given by the Marubeni representative which caught my interest. He said that starting a new business in a smaller economy meant it was more “manageable”. A foreign direct investment expert at the event confirmed what I had found out through my own researches on Japanese companies in Europe – smaller European countries are becoming popular foreign direct investment destinations.
Japanese companies in Portugal have quadrupled (from a small base) over the past 6 years, but other European countries of 6-11 million population size have also seen an increase in Japanese acquisitions or greenfield manufacturing investment, such as Finland, Sweden, Hungary and Czech Republic.
The number of Japanese expatriates in Portugal has not risen quite so rapidly. Growth in the Japanese communities in the Netherlands, Poland and Ireland has been greater. From a business, as well as a weather, food, golfing and cultural perspective, I wonder whether this might be about to change.
This article by Pernille Rudlin was originally published in Japanese in the Teikoku Databank News on 15 January 2020
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