Nobuhiro Hashiba was aware that it was a thinly veiled test to see whether he would be a worthy boss or a mere business suit recently sent by a Japanese company.
Now director of Sapporo Breweries Ltd., Hashiba recalled when he was sent in summer 1987 to St. Clement Vineyards in Napa Valley, the heart of Northern California’s wine country, to serve as general manager of the winery that Sapporo Breweries had just acquired.
In front of him were 12 bottles of cabernet sauvignon of the same vintage. Surrounding him were winery workers, waiting to hear what the lone Japanese would say in the tasting party.
But Hashiba, whose career started in beer sales in Yokohama, was in his element.
“It has the fine bouquet of good aging with a touch of vanilla, which comes from French white oak,” he said, reading comments he wrote after tasting wine from each bottle. It was enough to earn the respect worthy of his title.
Whenever he faced an important occasion like this in the U.S., knowing what he was doing saved the day, even if he could not express himself in flawless English, he said.
“Unless you are very good at English, language skill cannot be of much help right away,” said Hashiba, 57. “Instead, you should learn to have one thing in which you really excel.”
The eldest son of a Tokyo liquor store owner, Hashiba was good at English since junior high school. He never worried about his language ability when his boss told him to go to the United States in 1982 to expand Sapporo beer sales beyond a small circle of Japanese restaurants. It was his first mission to the U.S.
Hashiba, who read Ananias Charles Littleton’s accounting texts in English with relative ease as a business major at Hitotsubashi University, found himself unable to order a stapler at a shop after he arrived at Sapporo’s New York office.
Back then, the brewer had only a small presence in U.S. The New York office was a one-person affair without local staff or secretary, and Hashiba had to do every office errand, including buying stationery.
He recalled once taking a business trip with a local broker to Detroit at a time when trade tensions were running high over the growing presence of Japanese cars on the U.S. market. On their way, the broker kept bashing Japanese carmakers.
Much to his chagrin, Hashiba could not argue back due to his limited English ability.
But his deep knowledge of wine, his life-long passion, came in handy during his beer sales stint in the Big Apple. “At least, it helped give the impression that I knew about (alcoholic beverages),” he said.
In his fourth year, Sapporo became the best-selling Japanese beer in the U.S. It has kept that position to this day, enjoying a dominance over domestic giants Asahi and Kirin.
Hashiba’s stint as a beer salesman in the U.S. ran for five years until January 1987, but he went back there just six months later as general manager of the just-acquired winery. Sapporo sold the winery in 1999.
Coming back to Japan as a seasoned international businessman, however, he admitted that he still cannot understand much of the English spoken in the film “Back to the Future.”
But he does not care. “The point is, do you know the technical terms (of your field) and are you good at your job?”
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