Executive General Manager
Taiyo Nippon Sanso Corporation
SI Innovation Center
SI Business Department
Taiyo Nippon Sanso Corporation
General Manager on Assignment
Shanghai Taiyo Nippon Sanso Gas Co., Ltd.
Process Design Section
PEC Engineering Department
Taiyo Nippon Sanso Corporation
* Assignment and position are as of July 16, 2020, when the interview was conducted.
On October 1, 2020, we made a fresh start as “Nippon Sanso Holdings,” having changed our structure and our company name. At this turning point, Executive Officer Satoshi Wataru, Executive General Manager of the HR Division, and three employees working on the front lines had a discussion about the quality of human resources that the Nippon Sanso Holdings Group needs going forward.
Deciding Factors for Joining Nippon Sanso Holdings
Wataru: To begin, I would like to ask each of you to introduce yourselves and briefly tell us about your career up to now.
Fujita: I joined the Company in 2009, so this is now my 12th year. Originally, I joined because I wanted to be involved in building ASUs. However, before I could do that I felt I needed to learn more about ASUs, and so I wanted my first assignment to be at an ASU. My wish was granted, and I worked for three years at the Nagoya Sanso Center. The opportunity to see actual ASUs in operation was an extremely valuable experience. I currently work in the Process Design Section of the PEC Engineering Department in the Engineering Division. My current department is involved in ASU design, so there are few opportunities to visit on-site. My three years working at an ASU enables me to understand how a new ASU will operate after it has been installed. Being able to use that experience in the design process is a powerful tool for me in my present role, so I am glad that I agreed to do that when I joined the Company.
Ikeda: Although Taiyo Nippon Sanso Corporation is mainly an industrial gases company, I work in the SI* Business Department of the Medical Division, which handles stable isotopes. I am responsible for developing applications for stable isotopes—in other words, finding out how customers can use them to their benefit. It may seem strange to say that I handle stable isotopes at an industrial gases company, but the principle of separating oxygen, nitrogen, and argon out from air can also be used to separate the stable isotopes of oxygen 16, 17, and 18. In fact, the core technologies are shared with industrial gases. The SI Business Department has a lot of customers with high levels of expertise, such as universities, hospitals, government agency research laboratories, and pharmaceutical companies. I value communication and dialogue with customers, based on accurately picking up their various needs, getting a feel for them, and uncovering them. I am sometimes asked to present lectures at academic conferences and symposiums, and so forth, and I actively make an effort to maintain a lot of contact points with customers. At seminars and symposiums, where there are opportunities for direct dialogue in an open atmosphere, in many cases I have found that customers have hidden latent needs that they themselves are unaware of. When I talk with customers, I try to identify their fundamental issues, not just what they present on the surface, and then propose solutions, asking their opinion about a certain approach to solving it or suggesting alternatives. Sometimes the issue can be solved using an approach that does not use my goods or services, but even in these cases, the most important thing is that the customer trusted me and consulted with me.
* Stable Isotope
Saida: I am the oldest in this group. Currently, I am working as the General Manager for our local subsidiary in China, Shanghai Taiyo Nippon Sanso Gas Co., Ltd. The company has a large plant for making gases, an ASU. The gas is transported by our Transport Division and sold by our Sales Division. For the equipment needed for gas supply installed on customers’ sites, the Engineering Division handles everything from installation to after-sales service. The company is like a miniature version of Taiyo Nippon Sanso Corporation, undertaking everything from making gases to serving the customers who use them. I joined the Company in 1997, and this year is my 24th. At first, I worked in the Gas Sales Division of the Tokyo Branch, selling general gases such as oxygen, nitrogen, and argon. After that, in 2004 I started working on new sales channels for gases at the Head Office. At the time, we were seeing an increase in Japanese customers expanding their operations overseas in China, Thailand, and so forth. We thought we would like to supply these customers overseas in China, Thailand, and even India as well, so from 2004 onward we started providing support for them through our overseas subsidiaries. In 2011, I was assigned to Shanghai Taiyo Nippon Sanso Gas. I was initially responsible for sales as the vice president. Since 2015, I have been responsible for overall management as General Manager.
Wataru: What has been your most difficult experience?
Saida: In 2015, when I was appointed General Manager, the company recorded a loss. At the time, I wondered how to make the company profitable and generate a profit. As you might expect, our employees are Chinese, and while commonly accepted ideas for Japan are not completely strange to non-Japanese, they do have a really different way of thinking about things. On the other hand, since there are limits to what Japanese people can do at an overseas local subsidiary, we have to rely on the national staff to take care of all the detailed aspects of operations. I was certainly struggling at first to see how I could convey our passion to them and lift their motivation, and how we might work together to increase the company’s earnings.
Wataru: Within the Group, most of the assignments as presidents of subsidiaries or affiliated companies are usually given to people who have a long history in the Company. Mr. Saida, you have become a company president at a young age. I think it is a tremendous example in terms of succession planning, and I would really like to see more people like yourself. While I don’t think young people necessarily need to be at the very top, I do think it is a good idea for them to experience serving in a role at around the level of No. 2 so that they can get an overall view of the company.
Trust Relationships with Customers Are a Differentiation Factor
Wataru: Could you tell me what is important to you in carrying out your work?
Saida: When I was responsible for sales, I found the most important things to be an attitude of sincerity and seriousness. Since gas itself cannot be differentiated, our nitrogen cannot be differentiated from that of our competitors because it is colorless and odorless. To have customers choose our products, I felt it was of paramount importance for the sales personnel to provide something extra in terms of their passion, their earnestness, and so forth.
Ikeda: On the topic of something extra, our most important product in the SI Business Department is Water-18O, which is an essential material for PET diagnosis used for early detection of cancer. However, it can also be used for other applications. For example, we propose Water-18O as part of a package with the peripheral technologies we have developed so we can add value through something extra.
Saida: The same applies with gas sales. It is extremely important to start by getting an understanding of what is troubling the customer, or what the customer is seeking, and then propose a solution. This is a key approach for gaining customers’ trust. Possibly because I am living overseas, in my work I am strongly conscious that I should avoid shutting myself inside my own shell and that I should always think about things from a higher perspective. China is developing rapidly, and we must change also if we want to keep up. Moreover, I think we must also change if we are to compete with major global industrial gases companies. Since my coworkers are not Japanese, I try to incorporate the good aspects of how Chinese people think and break down my preconceived ideas and attitudes. I have a strong intuition that hanging on to the notion that “Japanese people are like this” will not help me perform well.
Fujita: I am also constantly aware of this. I am an engineer, but when customers tell me that they want to buy an ASU, I think together with the sales personnel about what kind of unit would be suitable. As an engineer, it is important simply to make something good, however, the definition of “something good” is different for each customer. When I make a proposal, I really try to incorporate the demands that the customer does not articulate. Another thing I do when making a proposal is to try and predict what kind of impact I want to have on the customer and relevant parties. In some cases, I may prepare a separate response, anticipating what one person is likely to do and what another person is likely to do after that. In this way, I try to act with the idea of looking ahead at what will happen next.
Ikeda: As I listen to Mr. Fujita, I feel that our approach is broadly similar, although we have different jobs and handle different products and services. He and I joined the Company in the same year, so we both received the same training since our new recruit days, and I am impressed that 10 years later we have the arrived at the same kind of thinking. I pay attention to “ensuring the reliability of stable performance.” Safety and reliability are extremely important factors for industrial gases and stable isotopic labeling reagents, and for Water-18O, which I mentioned before. In the SI Business Department, where I work, I often have contact with customers as the person responsible for engineering, and I try to give them a sense of peace of mind and confidence through a combination of not only my performance as the person in charge of engineering but also multifaceted proposals delivered with passion, and a strong grasp of data to back them up.
The Real Meaning of “The Gas Professionals”
Wataru: Even after becoming Nippon Sanso Holdings, the philosophies of “Market-driven collaborative innovation: Improving the future through gases” and “The Gas Professionals” have not changed. “The Gas Professionals” cannot be changed; or rather, I think it does not need to be changed. What do each of you think about this?
Saida: Personally, I interpret the “The Gas Professionals” as meaning “sincerity” and “honesty.” If gas supplies are cut, then plants such as steel works have to stop operations. They would become unable to make steel. We provide gas to customers like this as part of their infrastructure, so I think that our responsibility as a supplier is extremely important. However, from the customer’s point of view, it is taken for granted in the same way as water coming out when you turn on a tap—when they open the valve, nitrogen comes out. That’s how if feels for them. Our mission as an infrastructure service, our job as a group of professionals, is one of sincerity and honesty, providing gas reliably and safely. Listening sincerely to customers’ concerns and being ready to work with them to find solutions—this is what “The Gas Professionals” means in my opinion.
Fujita: Since we present ourselves as “The Gas Professionals,” we are telling customers to trust us with their gas-related issues. In the Engineering Division, where I work, I suppose we are telling people to trust us with engineering-related issues. While that would be fine if I were able to resolve everything myself, that tends not to be possible. Therefore, I aim to use the specialization of each member of the team, asking various people to help me and giving them help in return in order to create better proposals for the customer. Our ultimate goal is to propose the optimal solution for the customer. In our approach to this goal, various people cooperate with one another to achieve it. I think this is what “The Gas Professionals” as a team is all about. Recently, our European business is increasing and I too was involved in consultations with European engineers; however, since Praxair, Inc. itself is a large company, as one would expect, it has strong technological capabilities and there is much for us to learn from them. As we have brought them into our Group, we will absorb their technological knowledge as well as their management style and other aspects in order to further develop our own style. I believe this will increase the level of our professionalism even more.
Ikeda: The Company’s internal resources are limited, so naturally there are limits to our ability to solve customers’ issues or develop new products through our own efforts alone. I think it is necessary to grow our community, for example, by collaborating with customers to solve issues and develop new products. As we stand now, we have a network with external entities such as universities and research laboratories, and we are currently using this to create new value. I think the philosophy refers to using our external network to enhance our capabilities by taking a “market-driven” approach for grasping latent needs when conceptualizing new products, then “collaborating” to give concrete form to the products.
Fujita: I am not only given directions by a boss, but am also given quite a lot of freedom to follow my own ideas. I interact directly with our sales team and find that if I churn out proposals they are adopted surprisingly often. I have experienced this several times, and find it rather fulfilling. I think the entire Group has this way of allowing people to do things their own way if they actively ask to be allowed to, provided that they have been in the job long enough to have sufficient experience. That has been my actual experience.
Ikeda: In my department, we are also allowed to follow our own lead (laughs). When I express an interest in doing something, nobody ever tries to put me off or stop me. If we can bring together a reasonable amount of information or supporting data to suggest that a project will work, the department will encourage us to go for it. This kind of atmosphere and culture is really good.
The Human Resources Needed for Nippon Sanso Holdings Group Going Forward
Wataru: Nippon Sanso Holdings will advance even further in becoming a global company going forward. When we have reached that stage, what kind of human resources would you like to be in charge of the Group’s future?
Fujita: I joined the Company 10 years ago, and at the time I would never have imagined that the Company would grow to this size. The markets in the United States, Asia, and Europe have already become large, and I never thought that I would be going to Europe for a business trip, so I feel that the situation has been changing progressively. Therefore, I think the question to ask is how flexible these human resources can be in responding to the situation. As “The Gas Professionals,” we take pride in holding steadfastly to our course, while also being flexible. I think that human resources who can find this balance will be extremely valuable, and I am also trying to develop this ability.
Saida: Reflecting on my current responsibility for Shanghai Taiyo Nippon Sanso Gas, I think the most important thing is the strong determination of the leader. It is essential first to have a strong determination to achieve goals, and to get everyone involved. The other factor is how well this determination can be shared by others in the company. There are various ways of achieving that I think, but I feel that it is important to be able to discuss issues together honestly from an equal position, and to find ways to deal with them. In particular, people overseas have different values, and I think that bringing in the opinions of diverse people enables the creation of something new. As Mr. Fujita said, we may hold tightly to our creed, but if we hold on too tightly and don’t admit diversity, nothing new can be created. Going forward, I think that the Company needs flexible human resources who accept diversity and are willing to change themselves and create something new.
Ikeda: I think that’s right. To overlap with what Mr. Saida just said, the SI Business Department where I work now has a very high number of mid-career hires, and we have new people joining such as researchers and people who have founded start-up companies. I think my department takes in more mid-career hires than others in the Company, but when I work with them I can feel they have a different perspective. If you are alone, your field of view tends to become narrower, but I have really noticed that the difference in the perspectives of people with different career backgrounds helps to stimulate opinions and leads to more flexible business planning. If specialists with various viewpoints join the Company, or not only specialists but also generalists and management personnel, as mid-career hires, I am excited to see what kind of synergies will be created.
Wataru: Actually, I think that employees have been held back a little in some ways by the values that we have had up to now. Our business model to date has been stable, and I think that we need to break up the parts that have become stultified with innovation driven by diversity. Ideally, we should have high-quality human resources in every area, including Japan, the United States, Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the Thermos Business, and I think this will be necessary. We need to enable further stimulation of employees’ desire to grow, including by preparing systems, and increase their motivation. Having just heard all of your honest thoughts, I feel a great sense of promise. Let us share our philosophy not only in Japan but across the globe, as we pave the way for the future. Thank you again for giving your valuable time and sharing your opinions.