MIT Sloan Fellow Hiroshi Onuki and the business of beer

Probing the possibilities of beer

MIT Sloan Fellow Hiroshi Onuki

When people put two and two together and realize that Hiroshi Onuki has come to the MIT Sloan Fellows Program because of a problem with beer, the taps open and the jokes start to flow. But for Onuki, beer is serious business. Senior manager at Kirin Brewery Company LTD, he has come to the MIT Sloan Fellows Program to deal with a demographic crisis.

Kirin Brewery Company, Onuki reports, is faced with a diminishing market for beer in Japan. “If you go into any Japanese restaurant right now, you will see young people drinking fancy cocktails, designer martinis, vodka mixed with exotic juices. The beer drinking population is aging. They are raising families and not socializing as much as they used to.” For Kirin, the writing on the wall is obvious — take the beer to the people who drink it. One of those beer-drinking cultures is China, where Western companies like Heineken are already competing. At present, however, only 15 percent of Kirin's business is outside Japan. Onuki's mission is to change that. During his year as a Sloan Fellow, he is building the strategy that will take Kirin global.

“China is #1 in beer consumption — we need to be there,” Onuki says. “I have been working mostly in the Japanese domestic market, so I need to learn about China and other cultures around the world before we expand into those markets. With experienced business leaders from all over the world, the Sloan Fellows Program is definitely the place to do that. I am gaining the knowledge that will help me to manage our overseas companies — information that I realize now would be disastrous not to know.”

Learning to disagree

One of those lessons is that success is directly proportionate to the strength of one's diplomatic skills, and that diplomatic skills include sensitivity to cultural differences. “During the summer, I was working in a study group with an American and a Fellow from India. At first we had clashing approaches, but we worked through it. We bonded and now have become good friends. I have learned how to disagree effectively, how to be persuasive in proposing my ideas, and how to motivate colleagues from different cultures.”

In expanding his perspectives, Onuki is also warming to subjects that he never before found engaging — finance, for example. “Andrew Lo announced at the beginning of his class: ‘Everybody will love finance after taking my class.’ I was skeptical, but he was absolutely right. Now I am intrigued. I would love to study more! And Duncan Simester has me excited about marketing. One by one, I am building the skills I need to be a complete leader...and having such a great time doing it!”

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