Having spent his entire adult life working and studying in Japan, Clinton Gass is well-versed in the intricacies of doing business in this unique market. Between his two companies, he and his team are responsible for the entire supply chain of rooibos tea in Japan. This healthy herbal brew is made from the leaves of a plant grown in Gass’s native South Africa, and has now become popular throughout the world, including in Japan.
How long have you been in Japan?
Seventeen years straight, which represents my entire working life. What is your background and why did you decide to start your business? I did a bachelor of science in building management in South Africa, but ended up never setting foot onto a construction site. Instead, after graduation I set out to explore other cultures, other ways of life in foreign lands. My passion for martial arts drew me to Asia, and ultimately Japan. From day one I was intrigued by the culture and found it a good match with my personality and what I was seeking in life. I believed that I would find many exciting opportunities within this society and be able to carve out a space that suited me. Starting out as an English teacher, I nearly pursued a lifetime career in education, but in the end I decided that I could probably broaden my personal landscape further by catapulting myself into business through the MBA program that McGill was just establishing in Japan at the time. The MBA gave me the confidence to start my own business, and I thought that this would better fulfill my desire for flexibility and greater risk and reward potential than a corporate career would.
Please tell us a bit about your company.
Actually, I run two complementary companies, which occupy different positions in the supply chain. I set up Rooibos Marketing in order to strengthen the position of the leading supplier of bulk rooibos tea in the Japanese market and in order to gain greater control of a market that had been messed up by unfavorable business practices of former distributors. The second company, Gass Co. Ltd., I established in order to directly engage consumers using branded consumer products and to develop the many untapped areas of the market. Gass Co. primarily markets a range of organic, uniquely South African teas in PET bottles and packs of environmentally friendly tea bags. We have successfully expanded the market by moving rooibos from the health food channels into mainstream convenience stores and supermarkets.
What are the Japan-specific challenges your business faces?
I see more the opportunities than the challenges in Japan. Most of my business experience has been in Japan, and I find it easier doing business here than in other countries, where service levels are lower. What sets your company apart from its competitors? We are the only company that has full control of the supply chain from farmer to consumer. Also, perhaps my being a South African in a very Japanese industry sometimes affords me a unique, advantageous perspective.
What kind of advice would you give to aspiring professionals and entrepreneurs?
The first is about positioning. If you are going to start a business, be sure that you will be able to occupy a unique, meaningful positioning in the market that no one else will be capable of occupying. The same really applies to individuals on a career path in a large corporation as well. Understand what relative strengths you have, build on them, and know where to position yourself to maximize the value of those strengths. The second is about intuition. When you are faced with difficult business decisions, ensure that you are equipped with multiple perspectives and sound analysis, but at the end of the day, follow your gut feeling.
What do you think have been your best and worst business decisions?
My best decision was to launch our own branded product even in the face of stiff resistance from incumbent distributors who were buying raw material from us. My worst decision was to establish an industry association, because instead of facilitating collaboration on market development, it simply strengthened the position of incumbent players and protected their conservative business practices. Fortunately, that was something we were able to quickly undo.
What do you do in your spare time?
With all of the business opportunities that we are enjoying right now thanks to the World Cup, I have absolutely no spare time. Under normal circumstances though, I enjoy spending time with my kids, surfing, snowboarding, doing tai chi and tinkering with my garden.
Photo courtesy of Clinton Gass
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