Yakult's European success began 25 years ago in Almere.

All things considered, newly appointed managing director Matsubara-san feels that the best thing Yakult has brought to the Netherlands is the awareness of the importance of the gut.

‘It is our mission to contribute to a healthier life for people all over the world, and we are very proud to do this here too. Actually, Holland is our pilot market for the rest of continental Europe,’ Matsubara tells us when we sit down with him in the firm's offices in Amsterdam’s neighbouring city Almere.

A small bottle with a big story

Yakult’s probiotic drinks might be served in very small bottles, but the firm’s rich history means that they have a big story to tell. That history started 85 years ago, when Japanese microbiologist Minoru Shirota, inspired by the fermentation process that turned milk into curd, selected and cultivated a bacterium that was resilient to gastric acid and so reached the gut alive.

Naming the micro-organism Lactobacillus caseI Shirota, he launched ‘Yakult Honsha’ based on his unique fermented milk drink containing the LcS bacteria. Yakult's tasty probiotic drink is now one of the most successful products on the probiotic market, with each bottle containing a minimum of 6.5 billion of Shirota's bacteria. Its success has made the firm one of its biggest international players in the probiotic market.

In 2019, around 40 million bottles of Yakult are consumed worldwide each day. Outside Japan, Yakult operates in South America, Asia, the Middle East, the United States and Europe, meaning consumers in 39 countries and regions benefit from Dr Shirota’s early innovation in probiotics.

Yakult’s European Headquarters in Almere

To serve the European market, 25 years ago Yakult set up a European headquarters and production facility in Almere, about 30 kilometres east of the Dutch capital. Today, the plant employs around 120 people and produces hundreds of thousands of bottles every day. Matsubara says that, according to his predecessors who made the decision, selecting Almere for Yakult's operational base was an easy choice to make.

Hiroyasu Matsubara from Yakult in Almere

Photo: Yakult's Hiroyasu Matsubara in the firm's Almere headquarters

One reason that decision was so simple is down to Amsterdam’s reputation as a ‘gateway to Europe’, especially important for an international marketing and production company like Yakult. The connectivity of having Amsterdam Airport Schiphol so easily accessible also played a big part in Yakult choosing the Amsterdam Area for its European base. This connectivity makes distribution to continental Europe relatively easy - especially with the Port of Amsterdam nearby. Ease of distribution is also helped by Almere’s central position in the logistic support-network of the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. The open-mindedness of the Amsterdam Area’s business culture and the Netherland’s above average language proficiency also contributed to Yakult’s choice.

Yakult's sustainable ethos

Another decisive feature in the decision to base Yakult’s European operations in the Amsterdam Area was the availability of ample clean water. The company’s fermentation process requires a stable and guaranteed flow of fresh and unpolluted water. The water Yakult (and the rest of Almere) is using comes from a natural source under the province of Flevoland. This water originates from areas like the Veluwe national park, which lies east of Almere. Over the last few centuries, this water has infiltrated the soil and clay layers, slowly streaming towards Flevoland. This process means it is regarded not only as the cleanest water in the Netherlands, but is considered unique in northwestern Europe due to its exceptional quality, which is attractive to businesses working in the food sector.

Almere

Photo: Almere in the Amsterdam Area

"To work the various European markets, we very much rely on the international orientation of our Dutch colleagues," says Matsubara, who joined Yakult almost 30 years ago after working as a stockbroker in London. "Our trade is the production and marketing of probiotics and therefore we think and act like people with an agricultural background. Our motto is ‘you must sow before you can harvest’. This requires a lot of patience and good planning. Everyone here understands this and is acting upon it. If there is cultural diversity, then that translates into the decisions that we make."

"Before this, I was assigned to Yakult in the UK. The British and the Japanese are very much alike in their management styles, as it turns out; both are not very direct in expressing their views and are inclined to close deals outside of the conference room. Instead, my Dutch colleagues are very direct and expect their leaders to make decisions as soon as all discussions have been heard. This troubled me at first, but now I find it liberating. Combined with the Japanese way of creating consensus, it works."

In return, Yakult does everything it can to reduce its intake of water and to close its production cycles. The company is an active member of the Dutch Dairy Association (NZO), which aims to enhance the cooperation of companies active in the dairy sector by sharing knowledge on process-efficiency and sustainability. The factory is certified to FSSC, ISO 90001 and ISO 14000 (environmental) standards. "This is another important feature of our mission: we feel a strong responsibility to preserve the continuity of the world we are living and working in," Matsubara says.

Giving back to the Amsterdam Area community

Yakult also takes its social responsibilities seriously. It is a sponsor of the world-renowned Dutch Philharmonic Orchestra and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It supported the newly built Micropia Museum at ARTIS Amsterdam Royal Zoo from the moment that the concept was first proposed. "This helps us to relate our message, especially to younger generations," Matsubara adds. On a local scale, Yakult donates products to support the people who rely on Almere’s food bank.  "Yakult strongly believes in actively engaging with our social and cultural environments and trying to do everything in our power to improve them. Also, building a brand name as an employer and benefactor of the local community is a sound commercial investment."

Van Gogh museum Amsterdam Jan Kees Steenman

Celebrating 25 years in the Amsterdam Area

Now that the marriage of Yakult and Almere is nearing its silver anniversary, the question arises: which next steps will the Japanese probiotics company take to ensure its future here? Out of a total of 27, Yakult is sold in 13 EU member states. So, in some ways, the company still has a lot more of the market to conquer. On a wider scale - including non-EU members - there are 54 different countries in Europe in which the demand for probiotics (like Yakult) can still be activated.

Matsubara admits that the potential is huge, but there are still some legal obstacles to overcome. The most important one is the lack of a European legal framework for probiotics. Yakult is confident, however, that this issue will be solved, and that in the future it will receive an approved health claim – something it doesn’t currently hold. "From that moment on this is a different ball game," Matsubara concludes hopefully. For now, it seems like some of the greatest chapters in Yakult’s history are yet to be written.

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