Japan Today
executive impact

Ron Haigh: Chairman of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan

By Chris Betros

It’s quite fitting that one of the favorite Canadian actors of Ron Haigh, the new chairman of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan (CCCJ), is William Shatner (Capt Kirk of the original “Star Trek” TV series). “His opening line at the beginning of each episode – ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before’ – sort of fits my new responsibilities and goals with the chamber,” Haigh says during an interview in the Sky Suite of the Andaz Hotel in Tokyo.

Born in Churchill, Manitoba, Haigh moved around with his family to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, before settling in Quebec for six years. He graduated from the University of Toronto with degrees in English literature and Japanese studies. “My first job was at an interpreter training program center where I would analyse the skills of Japanese interpreters and custom design a program for them to improve their ability. Then I got interviewed by Toyota in New York and was posted to Tokyo … and I have been with them for 27 years now.”

Commuting regularly between Tokyo, Shizuoka (where he has a house) and Toyota City, Haigh is Toyota’s project manager for the Americas group and handles external affairs for Canada where the company sells about 200,000 units a year. “I am always dealing with federal government officials, bureaucrats, provincial officials and people in supporting industries. We get a lot of VIP visitors, and sometimes I take them on plant tours. I have the gift of the gab, I suppose.”

After beginning his two-year term as CCCJ chairman, Haigh realised he needed to be in the chamber’s office in Tokyo some time each week, rather than just conduct business with members via email and attend meetings with the board of governors. So he took the unprecedented step of devoting two full weekdays (usually Wednesdays and Thursdays) to being in the Tokyo office.

“A lot of people were surprised. They wondered how I could manage,” Haigh says. “Becoming CCCJ chairman would not have been possible without Toyota’s understanding. I went to the board of directors to convince them that it was important for me to spend three or four days a week working for the chamber and that I could still do my job.”

As the new year begins, Haigh believes the chamber has “to ride two horses,” as he puts it. “One is the work horse where we will make more professional our processes. When someone becomes a member, they should be treated at a certain standard that makes them feel glad they are a member and that the chamber is contributing to their business activities. The other horse is the charger – the one that races into the horizon, to find new ways to do what we should always be doing, which is expanding business opportunities for our Canadian and Japanese members, providing information useful to their business, and creating network events to allow them to exchange information.”

The CCCJ currently has around 500 members in Japan, and around 40% are Japanese. “It’s all about two different cultures working together to complement each other,” Haigh says. “Many Japanese members lived in Canada. They loved it and don’t want to let go. So when they came back to Japan, they joined the chamber as one way for them to keep up their interest in Canadian business and culture. We are like a little piece of Canada for them.”

Haigh says he hopes to grow the corporate membership this year. “One of the benefits of joining the chamber is that we really listen to our members and help them based on what they need, rather than presuming to tell them what they should do. The most important thing I can bring to this position is to listen to people, and then deliver to their expectations.”

TPP will be major issue

Trade is certain to be the biggest issue between the two countries in 2016, specifically the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact that was hammered out in November. Contents of the negotiations were confidential until a massive document with all sorts of amendments was released soon after the deal was struck. “It’s quite overwhelming,” Haigh says. “I have some of Toyota’s best consultants trying to work out the implications. But what can we say for sure? Well, it will expand export opportunities for bother Canadian and Japanese companies. It’s going to increase competition and that is wonderful for the consumer. What’s still unclear is whether it will come into effect before or after the U.S. presidential election in November.”

One mission of the chamber, Haigh says, is to better acquaint the Japanese public with Canadian companies and products. “Right now, if you went out onto the street and asked Japanese people what they think Canada is famous for, they’d probably say maple syrup and ‘Anne of Green Gables.’ He adds that one of the biggest misperceptions about Canada he has encountered from Japanese people during his 30 years in Japan is the country’s size. “They don’t understand how large Canada is. When I first got married, my wife and I got on a train in Vancouver and spent 3 1/2 days going to Toronto. I told her ‘Now you’ve seen half of Canada. Do you want to see the other half?’ She couldn’t grasp how big the country is. Another misperception is some Japanese think all Canadians speak English and French.”

Besides the TPP, another topic is drawing attention among chamber members – the right to vote for expat Canadians. “If you have lived outside of Canada for five years, you lose the right to vote. We’ve tried to publicize this by getting together with five other Canadian chambers in Asia and we are sending letters to news media.”

Concerning outreach activities, the chamber will continue its intern program for students from the Tokai region. The CCCJ sponsors children in their final year of high school to come to Tokyo for one week and stay at members’ houses and see their workplaces. “That’s one example of doing something that contributes to the community,” Haigh explains.

After his three or four days in Tokyo each week, it’s back to Toyota HQ in Aichi Prefecture. The company had a big year in 2015, in which it regained its title as the world’s No. 1 automaker in terms of global sales. The 4th-generation Prius hybrid has just made its debut in Japan and will roll out in North America in February. “One thing people misunderstand about Toyota is that they think we are great because we sell more cars than anyone else or have a greater market capitalization. Those are not the main reasons why Toyota is a great company. It’s a great company because it was established to do something for society and still considers the needs of different stakeholders and customers. We have more than 10,000 engineers in Toyota City who are thinking each day what they can do to make consumers more thrilled about our cars.”

Haigh says having Toyota President Akio Toyoda for a boss helps. “He’s a wonderful person to work with. He is energetic and sincere and he has a love and understanding of cars because he is a professional race car driver. He is teaching us once again that automobiles should be exciting and inspiring. The new generation Prius is a different concept from before. People will buy it because it is fun to drive and it is good for the environment,” says Haigh who drives an Estima hybrid.

In between his commuting, Haigh enjoys fine dining and wine. “My idea of a great meal is 'kaiseki' that reflects the seasons. The presentation makes it so beautiful to look at. I have also been trying to write fiction novels – something realistic with a supernatural touch that gives you a ‘what-if’ if feeling.” Although he doesn’t play sports, he doesn’t hesitate when asked his favorite ice hockey team: “Definitely the Montreal Canadiens. When I was growing up in Quebec, we watched them every week. That was our religion.”

Despite the constant travel between Tokyo, Shizuoka and Toyota City, Haigh says he never tires of travelling. “Nobody bothers me on the shinkansen. Besides, you see lovely countryside, rolling hills and greenery. Having travelled back and forth, I can now recognize individual houses. ‘Oh, there’s Mr Suzuki’s house. He hasn’t put out the garbage. I wonder if he’s OK.’ It actually gets like that.”

© Japan Today

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Terrific article. We wish Ron great success in his new position.

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Second that, Brian Smith. As a former Chamber of Commerce (Victoria) marketing manager, I know his challenges and respect his ability to take them on. Not to mention Toyota's agreement to the idea. He'll be on my list to visit when I return this spring.

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Excellent article indeed! Congratulation Ron and all the best for the years to come.

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It certainly is wonderful to see such an up-beat presence in Japan for the Canadians. The Canadian Chamber has been virtually invisible here these past several decades. I do hope that Ron Haigh can actually make a difference, and wish him every success.

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Welcome Mr. Haigh,

Good luck to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. All we need now is to get rid of some the idiots at the British Chamber of Commerce and some real change and progress might be on the horizon

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Can someone fill me in on what any of these 'Chambers of Commerce' actually do? (without sounding like a glossy brochure, please). Is it basically just a private advocacy group/social club?

What happens after a company joins and pays its dues? Are they just allowed to send someone to a fancy diner here and there? Or do they get to vote on what policies the chamber will advocate for?

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"Can someone fill me in on what any of these 'Chambers of Commerce' actually do?"

Advocacy, or "lobbying." Their industry representatives meet Japanese regulators and offer proposals usually concerning regulation or non tariff barriers.

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Great article, Ron! Looking forward to working together more in 2016!

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Thanks. Although I imagine some foreign companies who have established their manufacturing and supply chains here in Japan are probably quite happy to see more regulations and non-tarriff barriers placed on imported goods and foreign competitors (just like domestic Japanese companies). What do these Chambers of Commerce do then? Do they canvass their members and take an official policy position that non-tariff barriers are always a bad thing, or do they talk out of both sides of their mouth in order to keep all of their members happy?

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