Sarah Stuart's 2014 Blog

Sarah Stuart, an MBA student and former editor of the New Zealand Woman's Weekly, reveals the challenges of the programme in a weekly blog.

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Where working for New Zealand is an honour

08 September 2014

It was 8am on Thursday morning. Shinagawa Station in Tokyo was a sea of business shirts and heels, a coordinated moving mass of Japanese corporate culture, all heading for open plan offices.

Swimming against or across the crowd required the skills of the slipperiest eel. But all around is quiet. No one speaks and every worker has just enough space around them to breathe and to move at their own pace. Collisions are rare. It was elegant, respectful and almost beautiful in its urban serenity.

We are four days into a week of meetings, research and study for the University of Auckland MBA International Business paper; a task where we are working for a New Zealand client on a Japanese project.

It is undoubtedly the highlight of the course thus far. My small team of four has met the head of the largest fruit wholesale market in Tokyo, a delightfully expressive elder statesman who decried the increasingly sweet fruit being bred for the Japanese market and worried about the young people who are switching to novelty drinks and snacks instead of reaching for a banana.

At an office 30 minutes from the central city, a tall and handsome Head of Sales told us that working as an agent for a New Zealand grower makes him not only a better businessman, but a better man. "It is an honour," he said, and he truly meant it. That's not a line you hear every day.

On a Tuesday night in a working class downtown suburb, we ran a focus group with a coterie of lively mums. When the formal questions had finished, and the Director of the university's New Zealand Asia Institute, Professor Hugh Whittaker, had translated the lively conversation, we sat down together to dine.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has committed to getting the country's women back into work and up the corporate ladder. Of this group of friends, all had jobs, including one mother of five children. Times were tough financially, however, and all were worried about how their children would cope in a population where one worker will soon be supporting three retirees.

I had questioned whether our group of MBA students from business backgrounds as diverse as supply chain, IT, community engagement and communications could offer real value to a client in a few weeks of research and a week on the ground. But we've learned more than I realised in the past 18 months and, as we gathered to plot the report we will take back, our critical thinking was robust and, we hope, insightful.

Japan's businesses face difficulties, as the ageing population and precarious financial situation bite into profits. But traditional ways of doing business are hard to shake and, although globalisation is the way forward for many, having foreigners in a company or as independent directors on a board is still unusual.

At least one of my group has loved his time here and is thinking of looking for opportunities to shift his work to Japan. The rest of us are probably content to have learned about business in a culture as different to our laid-back DIY Kiwi bravado as possible.

We are working long hours to ensure not only good marks but a valuable recommendation for our client. Two days to go. And at least a dozen more rides out of Shinagawa Station.