Mayumi Watanabe

Deputy General Manager, Americas & EMEA Business Dept.
Overseas Business Development Div.
Food and Retail Management Business Unit

Mayumi Watanabe joined Mitsui as a mid-career hire. After starting out in the legal department, she moved to the business side where she finds and develops new investment opportunities.

Mayumi Watanabe

I was seven years into my career before I joined Mitsui in January 2005. The idea of working for a trading company appealed to me. Mitsui has an excellent reputation, but at the interview I also got the sense that it was a place where the individual was treated with respect.

I started out in the legal department. The people in Mitsui’s legal department work closely with the business side and are encouraged to have a good grasp of strategy and marketing issues as well as of legal issues. I became to feel that the best way for me to get my legal advice across even more forcefully would be to acquire more direct business experience.

In 2007 I was transferred to Mitsui’s London office. During my three-and-a-half years there, I was responsible for a broad geography—Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet Union—and was involved in negotiations for everything from steel processing centers in Russia and solar farms in Spain to litigation in Iran.

There’s no physical distance between different sections of the company in Mitsui London. I was working literally cheek by jowl with people on the business side. That, and all the negotiations I was taking part in, increased my desire to acquire direct business experience. It’s certainly one reason why I enrolled for part-time law school and a distance-learning MBA at Warwick University in the UK in 2009, while working full-time in Mitsui London on weekdays. I kept up my studies after returning to Tokyo head office in 2011 and got my MBA in June 2013.

It was April 2014 when I finally made the move from the legal to the business side. I was posted to the Oils & Fats Project Department. Before joining Mitsui, I worked for a well-known international coffee shop chain. Food is part of all our everyday lives, so it seemed like a great place for me to start my career on the business side. Most of the job involves developing new businesses in Asia and the Middle East, but I spend around 10% to 15% of my time handling our food-related joint ventures.

Mayumi Watanabe

One of such food related joint ventures I dealt with until early 2016 was Ventura Foods, a California-based maker of oils, dressings, dips and sauces. Mitsui owns Ventura in a joint venture with CHS, a big American agricultural cooperative. My role there was to make sure that Mitsui got all the information it needed as a shareholder. I monitored the company, kept an eye on its financials and prepared the Mitsui directors for the shareholders’ meeting. If Ventura Foods was going to make an acquisition, for example, I would pull together all the data that Mitsui needed to be comfortable signing off on the deal.

As part of my job, I got to see the top management of Ventura Foods and CHS in action. It was a master class in American-style management. When the CEOs or COOs conducted meetings, they knew when to take the lead and when to step back and let someone else take over. I learned a lot about communication from them.

It was also interesting to see how Christopher Furman, Ventura’s CEO, fostered a strong company culture by implementing the vision, mission and values of the “Ventura Edge.” These are all lessons I hope to be able to put to use if I get the chance to run a Mitsui affiliate one day.

Since May 2016, I’ve been in charge of developing new food and retail businesses in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas. Unusually for Mitsui, my team isn’t limited to a single product or food type. As this Food and Retail Management Business Unit is new, I think it’s good to have a broad-based outlook.

What’s the biggest difference between Mitsui and my previous two jobs? The sheer size and scope of the company. Since joining, I have really learned how a big organization functions. There’s this whole system in place for sharing institutional knowledge based on mutual respect between senpai (seniors) and kohai (juniors), not to mention the same between colleagues and between different divisions. Importantly, a company builds up institutional knowledge as much through its failures as much as through its successes. When I’m exploring a new deal or opportunity, I can always find someone with experience somehow relevant to it via Mitsui’s internal networks and tap them for advice. I try to make myself available to share the knowledge I’ve acquired too.

Having started out in the legal department, I have since gained in-depth experience in developing business ideas and strategies, finding potential partners and building up businesses and investment opportunities. Trading companies specialize in creating new ventures by combining businesses from different domains. I hope to do something similar: I want to combine my original legal expertise with all the new skills I have acquired to create new forms of value as Mitsui’s business model evolves and changes.

Posted in March 2017