One can gain many insights from one’s chosen profession, including valuable lessons about a foreign culture. Eric De Groot has learned much about his adopted country during his 25 years in Japan’s construction and building materials industry, including a notion he calls “semi-permanence”.
“The built environment is treated much differently in Japanese culture than in the West,” says De Groot, president of spray foam insulation manufacturer Icynene Asia-Pacific and member of the EBC Construction Committee. “Buildings here are meant to serve the people who use them and have no — or very little — sentimental or intrinsic value on their own. Once their usefulness no longer justifies their upkeep, they are replaced.”
The reason for this is that the Japanese have historically used wood for building — making homes and other structures that are vulnerable to earthquakes, typhoons, floods and fires. It’s one reason that, even today, Japanese homes have a shorter lifespan than those in places such as Europe, where many last hundreds of years.
“The way it’s expressed today in the housing industry is that you look at the average life cycle of a house being 25 years — basically, from brand new to zero value,” says De Groot. “It’s completely opposite to the way most [Western] people think about what should happen in housing values. An older house, if maintained, should increase in value. It’s completely counter-intuitive to the way people think about real estate value.”
De Groot does add that many Japanese are now realising the waste of constant rebuilding. And the government is also promoting construction of longer-lasting structures, including the notion of the “100-year house”. But the vast majority of new homes are still of the low-cost variety, or what De Groot calls “put it up now and we’ll worry about what it’s worth down the line”.
“I don’t think the thought that buildings are not permanent was a part of their culture,” De Groot adds, “but it certainly became part of their experience, which then informed the culture. Culture is really shaped by the environment. So much of the [Japanese] attitude to housing — and to buildings in general — is because of the environment they live in.”
A Canadian who traces his European roots to his Belgian grandfather and English grandmother, De Groot arrived in Japan during the bubble era of the mid-1980s. After briefly working for a foreign trade office and a Canadian lumber exporting group, he moved over to Forbo, the Swiss commercial flooring giant, in 2003. After a decade there, he switched to his current firm in January of this year.
As one of the few non-Japanese employed in Japan’s notoriously conservative, hierarchical and insular construction and housing industry, De Groot credits his success in finding a niche. His current firm was the first to make light-density polyurethane spray foam for insulation — now used in 7% of all new housing starts in Japan. With the Japanese government focusing on reducing energy wasted in poorly insulated buildings — and mandating that every home be insulated by 2020 — De Groot senses a real opportunity for Icynene’s products.
He advises newcomers looking for success in Japan to find a similar route.
“I’m endlessly fascinated by the challenges of marketing foreign products in Japan — and of how and why some products are wildly successful here. Others find a comfortable and profitable niche far off anyone’s radar [especially the radar of giant local rivals who could destroy them with a wave of the hand]. And others crash and burn in spectacular fashion,” he says.
“There’s no one answer, of course, but key is researching the particularities of the relationships between the players in each industry — and especially the competitive environment.
“My advice to most businesses, given the risks, is to aim for the comfortable niche, secure it and hold it as a beachhead, then try to expand from there,” he continues. “Especially in an industry as unfamiliar with foreign products and services as the construction and building materials industry, I think the high-end niche is an achievable and realistic space to aim for.”
DO YOU LIKE NATTO?
Time spent working in Japan: 25 years, almost all my working life.
Career regret (if any): Still a work in progress.
Favourite saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Favourite book: The Wages of Guilt by Ian Buruma.
Cannot live without: Rock ’n’ roll.
Lesson learned in Japan: Patience.
Secret of success in business: Hire good people, make sure they know the goals, then get out of their way.
Favourite place to dine out: Anywhere with good junmai-shu.
Do you like natto? You’re kidding, right?© TOKYO