The era of Japan’s big overseas acquisitions began with domestic mega M&As in the 1990s according to Nikkei Business magazine. Following the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble in 1990, a wave of M&As happened in the financial sector, giving birth to Mizuho from Fuji Bank, Daiichi Kangyo and the Industrial Bank of Japan and Sumitomo Bank and Sakura Bank producing SMBC. In the steel sector with NKK merging with Kawasaki Steel and becoming JFE and in the pharmaceuticals sector with Yamanouchi and Fujisawa merged to become Astellas.
The key concept for these M&As in the 1990s was “restructuring” – to rationalise the back office and integrate R&D. Then in the second half of the 2000s came a wave of overseas acquisitions, to counter the business impact of the shrinking, ageing population of Japan by growing overseas but also to benefit from further restructuring and rationalisation.
Mega overseas acquisitions of the 2000s
In 2007 Japan Tobacco acquired the UK’s Gallaher from RJR, becoming the third biggest tobacco company in the world. In 2006 SoftBank acquired Vodafone Japan and then the US company Sprint Nextel, then British ARM Holdings in 2016. Takeda acquired US Millennium Pharmaceuticals in 2008, then Swiss Nycomed in 2011, with the biggest M&A ever by a Japanese company, acquiring Ireland’s Shire in 2019.
“Growing overseas means the development of our human resources has become an urgent necessity” said the President of Takeda in 2006, Yasuchika Hasegawa. Hasegawa was seen as “an alien from outerspace” for his dry, rational management style, arising from many years working in the USA. Although Takeda had been the biggest pharmaceutical company in Japan for some years, it only ranked around 17 in the world before its acquisition spree and urgently needed to find new drug development sources. It felt it was lagging competitors.
The need for global management skills
Hasegawa decided to globalise the company internally by recruiting a foreign successor to himself in 2014 – Christophe Weber from GlaxoSmithKline. Three out of the seven current Takeda directors are not Japanese.
Japan Tobacco‘s managers sent overseas after the Gallaher acquisition found themselves caught between overseas executives determined to defend their patch with rational, logical arguments about productivity, logistics and profitability. After years of painful discussion, it was agreed to close the factory in Northern Ireland. Even now, says Masamichi Terabatake, the current President of Japan Tobacco, a Japan based executive needs to be prepared to travel around the world regularly to discuss strategy with local executives. “You need to keep global staff motivated. Investment and marketing cannot be left vague, they have to be quantitative so they can be transparently discussed. That’s probably why executives in the West are a bit younger!” he says.
NSG acquired UK’s Pilkington in 2006, becoming heavily indebted to do so. From being very domestic, it became a company whose sales were 80% overseas. Unfortunately this proved to be terrible timing as the automotive and architectural glass market crashed after the Lehman Shock.
Many of the acquirers also struggled because they did not have managers with experience of managing overseas businesses. As Nikkei Business magazine says, mega M&A means mega complexity for which plenty of preparation and a high level of management know-how, with the ability to spread this know-how horizontally and vertically is needed for success. It’s still not clear how far Japanese companies have progressed in this.
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