In the spirits of growth

Suntory Holdings Ltd.’s recent deal to buy Beam Inc. of the United States is the latest indication that once reputedly risk-averse Japanese firms are becoming more aggressive in expanding overseas operations through mergers and acquisitions (M&As).

One reason for this aggressiveness is the shrinking prospects in the domestic market, where demand is forecast to decline with the falling birthrate and the graying of the population.

In the alcohol beverage sector, for example, shipments of beer and beer-like drinks in Japan fell for the ninth consecutive year in 2013. For Suntory, the Osaka-based whiskey and beer maker, the $16 billion deal to buy the Illinois-based liquor maker of such brands as Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Canadian Club gives it greater exposure to the profitable spirits market in North America.

When completed, it would be the largest overseas acquisition by a Japanese firm since Softbank Corp.’s $21.6 billion acquisition of Sprint Corp., which was announced in 2012.

In today’s business environment, mergers with foreign firms or outright acquisitions of them have become one option for companies to gain new markets as they restructure profitable and unprofitable operations on a global scale.

After its talks with Kirin Holdings Co. on business integration broke down in 2010, Suntory management turned its eyes to overseas markets with a sense of crisis that its survival is not ensured with the focus on the Japanese market alone.

Kirin for its part has taken control of beverage makers in Brazil and Australia, apparently for the very same reason.

Many large Japanese firms have accumulated surplus funds amid sharp improvements in their finances in recent years. While a lot of these firms have managed the funds through financial investments as safeguards for the future, some companies are starting to use these funds for aggressive purchases of overseas firms as a strategy for their future growth.

An overseas buying spree by Japanese firms in recent years — fueled by the strong yen — appeared to peak in 2012. It lost some steam last year as the yen declined roughly 20 percent against the dollar. The huge Suntory deal shows that the appetite is still there, however, even though the weaker yen makes overseas acquisition more expensive for Japanese firms.

The eventual success of a corporate takeover may be unpredictable as it depends on a number of variables. There have been many cases in which communication difficulties with the acquired foreign firm has led to the failure of an overseas M&A involving Japanese companies.

For Japanese firms that lack experience in multinational operations, the acquisition of foreign firms may provide the hard lessons needed to survive global competition.

The government is promoting overseas M&As as a strategy for reinvigorating Japanese business. The Abe administration’s efforts to beef up industrial competitiveness by encouraging Japanese-driven M&As is reported to have the support of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry.

The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) offers expert knowhow on such matters as completing the lengthy clerical work that comes with overseas acquisitions — from the negotiation stage to wrapping up contracts. Companies weighing the risks and benefits of overseas M&A deals are advised to use these kinds of support.