A Dutch homecoming
Yakult Europe’s Managing Director, Dr Tomoyuki Sako, likes Amsterdam so much that he’s now on his second posting to the country. The first time he came to the Netherlands, it was as a scientist in 1997. He stayed for four years. In 2009, he returned as chief scientist, but a year ago he was appointed to his current job as the man whose mission is to promote Yakult’s probiotic health drink in Europe. Despite being a long way from Japan, Mr Sako says that he and his family are happy to be here: “When I got my second posting here, I didn’t expect it, because it’s not usual for Yakult to send someone to the same place twice. When I came here again it felt almost like a homecoming. So I think that shows that I feel very comfortable here.”
Speaking English breaks down barriers
For Mr Sako, the fact that many Dutch people also speak English means that communicating is easier – not just for business, but for making friends. Japanese business people often learn English and sharing the international language of business helps to break down barriers.
“To me, in the Netherlands, at least I can use English to talk to people and neighbours as well. I don’t feel any problem with communication, but if we go to Germany not so many people speak English, and in France barely anyone at all. So the Netherlands is quite an easy place to live.” However, being able to use a common international language is not the only reason why Yakult chose the Netherlands as the place to build its European headquarters.
The right water
According to Mr Sako, the country also has the right kind of water needed to make Yakult. “Sometimes the quality of the water influences the fermentation efficiency needed to produce Yakult. But it’s not just water; the Dutch also have an established dairy industry. These are important factors for us when it comes to producing a good quality product.”
Mr Sako is very open about the fact that he is first and foremost a scientist, and being Managing Director of Yakult’s European operations has taken him out of his comfort zone; he is learning on the job. He now oversees all of Yakult’s activities in Europe, including sales and marketing.
A scientist at heart
Yakult’s factory is situated in Almere, about 30 kilometres east of Amsterdam. As he walks around the laboratories and production area it is easy to see that Mr Sako has a real affinity for the science behind every bottle of the probiotic drink. As he says, it’s a little bottle with a big story.
The first bottle of Yakult came on to the Japanese market 80 years ago after years of research by Japanese scientist and founder of the company, Dr Minoru Shirota. The drink was first produced at the European factory in Almere in 1994. It now produces around 600,000 bottles every day, and constant testing by scientists ensures that the culture of healthy bacteria found in a bottle of Yakult sold in Europe is the same as that sold in Japan.
Each Yakult drink contains 6.5-billion Lactobacillus casei Shirota bacteria. According to Mr Sako, the Dutch drink more of it on a regular basis than anywhere else in Europe. Today, the plant employs around 120 people including scientists involved in setting up clinical studies with hospitals and universities. In order to satisfy the stringent demands made by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), it is their job to make sure that the product’s claims stand up to scrutiny. Mr Sako says the clinical trials play an important role in the work carried out at the Dutch site. “Yakult is known for the probiotics that influence your gut microbiota. The gut is key to our science activity.”
Transport infrastructure aids expansion
Mr Sako is hesitant to give too much away, but he acknowledges that there are plans to expand operations in Europe and he sees Yakult’s plant in Almere as playing a major role. He admits that the European market is a tough nut to crack and establishing an effective distribution network is not easy. Yakult is currently marketed in 11 countries across the continent. Mr Sako says Amsterdam’s transport infrastructure, centred around the Port of Amsterdam and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, makes it easier to do business from the Netherlands.
He says the support of the Dutch government and other official agencies have made it easier for the Japanese company to become established in the Netherlands. For its part, Yakult is actively engaged in Dutch cultural life and sponsors the acclaimed Dutch Philharmonic Orchestra and the Van Gogh Museum. It also sponsors Almere’s annual festival and classical concert in the harbour.
Mr Sako says cultural activity is a good way for the company to establish its presence in society, introduce people to its brand and make friends. Mr Sako says Yakult’s mission is to contribute not only to people’s health but also to their happiness.
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