- Associated Press - Sunday, May 1, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s small business owners say state employees nestled in offices more than 6,000 miles away have saved them from making irrevocable mistakes in the global market.

The Nebraska Center Japan in Yokohama celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and during the past decade, exports to the country have more than tripled, thanks in part to the center’s physical presence as a touch point for economic development in the region.

Jeremy Baker, global sales manager for Oxbow Animal Health in Murdock, said representatives at the center guided the company through cultural nuances that don’t exist in small-town Nebraska.

“You can read about it, but to actually have an individual who can prevent some pitfalls: the proper way to greet an individual, the proper way to receive a business card, the proper way to acknowledge a business card,” Baker said. “A lot of those different things that here in the U.S. we really take for granted or don’t put as much thought process into, in Japan there’s certainly a different expectation.”

Oxbow makes pet food for small domestic animals - gerbils, chinchillas, rabbits, and hamsters - and employs about 130 workers in Murdock.

Baker said the company “naively” entered the Japanese market in the late 1990s after a pet store in Japan requested their products. But without context or strategy going in, development plateaued with three distribution centers overlapping brand and territories.

Oxbow linked with Nebraska Center Japan’s executive director Koji Nagasaka and office manager Hisami Imagawa to analyze which partnerships the company should and should not continue. About three years ago Oxbow cut ties with its previous distributors to consolidate under one master distributer, and Baker said Oxbow’s business in Japan doubled within a year.

Nagasaka and Imagawa are state employees who do everything from coordinating transportation and translation services, to helping businesses rebrand their international packaging and marketing materials. For Oxbow, they became like brand ambassadors to vet potential partners, Baker said.

“They understood our business so well. The process and what our expectations and goals were; it was almost that they were an associate of ours,” Baker said.

An office in Japan makes sense, said Joe Chapuran, international development manager for Nebraska’s Department of Economic Development. Japan is Nebraska’s third-largest market after Canada and Mexico, with nearly $800 million of Nebraska exports in 2015 alone.

The legislature allocates $250,000 to maintain trade offices in Japan and China. Outside of that, private partners from Nebraska business communities donate to offset costs outside of general operations.

Chapuran said the center’s physical presence is essential for maintaining business connections. Even more than in the United States, successful business relationships in Japan depend on personal relationships. Initial business interactions should focus more on building trust and personal relationships than immediate action. Negotiations could include city tours and sightseeing, family introductions, facility tours, a weekend of hunting, which can be frustrating for Americans looking for immediate action, Chapuran said.

“If the person doesn’t come back with a bunch of sales, it’s not a bad trip. The culture’s different. It’s long-term development,” Chapuran said.

If a relationship is developed, Chapuran said many companies find themselves in long-standing collaborations that outlast market fluctuations.

Trust was a motive for opening the Nebraska Center China in Shanghai in 2013, said Cobus Block, Nebraska’s international development assistant manager, because China’s rapid development means the country’s rules and regulations are constantly shifting.

“Things are a lot more murky, so having a good relationship with someone who understands and has the right connections and knows how to get things done is key to a company’s success,” Block said.

Jennifer Zhang, who represents Nebraska to China through her consulting business, JZW International, said one of her jobs is to play middleman, making sure Nebraska businesses are building the right connections in the right places.

“It’s a developing country. The law is not 100 percent developed,” Zhang said. “There are many loopholes. You often will go to government facility where the normal process is six months, but you know somebody and can get it in two weeks. Finding a trustworthy partner is key for Nebraska companies. My job is to look out for Nebraska companies.”

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