‘Kentucky kon’nichiwa’: EDP president recounts economic development trip to Japan

By JODY LASSITER

Economic Development Partnership

If you are wondering about the title of this column, “kon’nichiwa” means “hello” in Japanese.  I recently had the awesome opportunity to represent Danville-Boyle County, as well as our 11-county Kentucky Crossroads regional economic development coalition, on an extensive, eight-day business mission to Japan.

The business mission was organized by the Kentucky World Trade Center and joined by the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development and KentuckyUnited, the state business development marketing cooperative in which our community and region actively participates.  Through this joint effort, KentuckyUnited partners were able to participate at a cost of $6,700 each, including flight, lodging, group ground transportation and most meals.  

Our delegation was led by Gov. Matt Bevin, followed by Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development Secretary Terry Gill and Business Development Commissioner Mandy Lambert.  Danville-Boyle County was one of the two smallest Kentucky communities represented in our delegation, along with Morehead-Rowan County. Other communities represented were Bowling Green, Northern Kentucky, Owensboro, Henderson, and Hopkinsville.

Kentucky and Japan have had a long and productive business relationship since the mid-1980s.  Most Kentuckians probably think that relationship began with Toyota’s location of its first North American manufacturing facility in Georgetown in 1986.  However, I learned during the trip that Toyota was actually the third major Japanese investor in Kentucky. The second was Hitachi Automotive right here in our region in Harrodsburg.

The importance of this business mission for our community was not just to network with existing businesses who already have Kentucky investments and to explore potential prospects for future development. Relationships are highly-valued in the Japanese business culture. To take the interest, time, effort and expense to visit Japan in person and to better understand and appreciate its culture is a significant demonstration of respect and honor in that relationship.  

For example, I shared with a Japanese business prospect making a site visit to Danville in February that I was making my first trip to Japan the following week. Immediately, across the often-challenging boundary of language and formality, the prospect team’s eyes lit up and the subject of conversation quickly turned to what I should see and do while there if possible. A door of opportunity was opened further and a personal relationship was drawn closer.

Our week of building and strengthening relationships was an extremely busy one. On Sunday, March 5, we toured Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery, where Japan’s signature malt whiskey is made.  Suntory Holdings Limited now owns the well-known Kentucky bourbon brand Jim Beam, which is known as Beam Suntory in the U.S.   

On Monday, March 6, we visited the historic U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to receive informative briefings on Japan’s economy and business climate from representatives of the U.S. Departments of State and Commerce.  Afterward, Gov. Bevin and I, along with Economic Development Cabinet officials, called upon the top executive team of Denyo at its corporate headquarters in Tokyo. Denyo has its only North American manufacturing facility in Danville.  The purpose of our visit was to thank Denyo’s leaders for their significant investment in Danville and their confidence in our community through multiple expansions, and to explore how we can continue to help the Danville operation to grow. That evening, Gov. Bevin hosted a reception at the Tokyo Imperial Palace Hotel for about 200 representatives of Japanese companies doing business in Kentucky or planning to do so.

Tuesday and Wednesday, March 7-8, were consumed with train rides, facility tours, and company briefings in Hitachi City and Toyota City at their respective manufacturing operations.  The Hitachi complex we toured is the “mother” facility to the Harrodsburg plant that employs many Boyle County residents. At Toyota, we visited the company museum, and then saw Toyota’s future designs both with concept cars and artificial intelligence at what is known as its Community Center.

On the morning of Thursday, March 9, I had the only free time during the week for sightseeing in Tokyo. A friend and I went in search of the Godzilla statue that we had heard much about, but were a bit disappointed to discover that the monster was about three feet tall atop a five-foot pedestal. Later that day, the Kentucky delegation’s economic developers met with representatives of the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) to discuss opportunities for further investment and trade between Japan and Kentucky.

The week was capped off on Friday, March 10, as several economic developers worked the floor at the massive Foodex Japan 2017, the 42nd international food and beverage exhibition in China. Manufacturers or producers of a variety of foods and beverages from across the globe were represented in the hope of establishing new markets for their products.  Our jam-packed business mission was an incredible learning and business networking experience.  While it was my first visit to Japan, I certainly hope it will not be my last.

Jody Lassiter is the president and CEO of the Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership and the Danville-Boyle County Industrial Foundation.