Everything hangs on the first three minutes of a pitch, whether in Tokyo or New York.
For Kenji Ueda, who searches out underperforming Japanese companies for U.S. investment firm Ripplewood LLC, those three minutes are some of the hardest in his job.
For months, the managing director of Ripplewood Japan, Inc. approaches promising companies, coaxing executives to trust a firm most Japanese managers associate with high-profile acquisitions, like that of the former Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan.
Then comes developing blueprints for growth and playing cat-and-mouse games with bankers to see if they can be tapped for funding, all the while calculating profits for investors.
All that work, to be summed up in three minutes.
In Japanese, Ueda is immune to stage fright. But in English, Ueda occasionally feels his mouth go dry moments before a crucial pitch to his American boss.
“Suddenly, your tongue turns into lead; the English doesn’t come,” Ueda, 51, said. He pictures himself describing a company’s profile and growth strategy to Ripplewood’s general partner Tim Collins.
“Real passion you have in a company’s future always comes through, somehow,” Ueda said.
But then again, practicing in front of the mirror before a meeting in English doesn’t hurt, he added. Neither does mouthing the three-minute pitch on the flight over.
Ueda came to Ripplewood in 1999 after 25 years of specializing in global investment and corporate finance at Tokio Marine & Fire Insurance Co. He soon discovered that the English you use when looking to buy differs from the English you need when trying to convince others to put money on the line.
“When I was the customer, people talked slowly and they’d listen extra hard to anything I said,” Ueda said of his time at Tokio Marine. “Now I’m the one trying to convince people to trust me.”
Armed with an easy-going smile, Ueda prides himself on his ability to make friends with anyone and to win their trust.
Last December, the Kobe native charmed executives at Asahi Tec Corp., a Shizuoka Prefecture-based midsize auto parts maker, with just one cold call and a 30-minute meeting.
In English, however, Ueda seems less certain.
Professional jargon poses no problems for him: He looked up and memorized as many as 10,000 words from merger and acquisition books during his first year at Ripplewood.
It’s the small talk that is painful.
“Sometimes I’m not sure whether the words I learned at school are the ones I really want,” he said.
At times his jokes bring scowls, while an offhand remark can bring a hearty laugh and a slap on the back.
Puzzled stares were his reward for one attempt to describe his boss Collins as “pure,” translated literally from “junsui” (pure of heart, not self-interested).
The most excruciating is elevator talk, Ueda said.
To cut to the chase, Ueda sometimes resorts to a plain “I like you” or even “I love you” — phrases hardly used between Japanese businessmen.
“It’s what I really feel about the people I work with, and I want people to know I think of them as friends and partners,” he said.
It may not be the most elegant or witty conversation, but it works, he said. “Isn’t that what words are for?”
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