Nothing is duller than watching paint dry, according to the internationally recognised benchmark of boredom. The comparison, says Hiroshi Ishino, misses the thrill of paint.
He is locked in a pitiless territorial war against global coatings groups, targeting emerging markets with the pre-emptive eye of a chess grandmaster and raring for more deals, after six overseas acquisitions worth ¥90bn ($800m) in 12 months.
Japanese company presidents, especially 65-year-olds running commodity businesses from the Osaka industrial heartland, rarely hit “fizzy” in their demeanour. But Mr Ishino, president of Kansai Paint since 2013 and architect of its transformation, reaches it in seconds.
In a torrent of phrases such as “global player”, “challenging company” and “growing middle class”, he lays out a corporate strategy that has seen the company’s overseas revenue shift from 40 per cent of its total in 2010 to 60 per cent today.
The acquisitions in eastern Europe, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and India, along with the 10-year plan he has put in place, he says, will see the ratio widen in favour of business outside Japan.
Mr Ishino’s first move of 2017, meanwhile, has been to extend Kansai’s presence in Africa by buying companies in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The size of the deal is undisclosed but bankers have described it as the largest corporate acquisition in east Africa for more than two years.
“We are doing deals. I want to do deals. There are many Japanese companies [overseas] . . . Everything is changing all the time, so why not?” he says.
In recent decades, Kansai’s global expansion — a process that has put it within the world’s top 10 paintmakers — has mostly ridden on the coat-tails of Toyota and Nissan. The company’s specialities include decorative paint, industrial coatings and marine, but it is as the leading paints supplier to Japan’s biggest car companies that Kansai has ventured abroad.
It was an attitude etched into Kansai’s corporate profile by the company’s aggressive $350m buyout in 2011 of South Africa’s Plascon — the deal with which Mr Ishino signalled his ambitions and stamped his mark on Kansai. Since 2011, the company’s share price has more than tripled, and since Mr Ishino became president it has doubled.
Last week, after the Financial Times reported the east African acquisitions, shares hit an all-time high and the company’s market value reached ¥638bn.
Mr Ishino’s career history explains much of that. He was poached from Mitsubishi Corporation, Japan’s biggest trading house, to run Kansai’s international division.
The trading houses, historically the most globalised and risk-taking of Japanese corporations, breed a type of executive that finds something both frustrating and absurd about those who would choose to turn inwards.
“I am from Osaka where companies have always had this mentality where they compete with Tokyo,” he says. “I have been asked to join an organisation on how to revive Osaka. Ridiculous! Forget it! Revive Japan globally, OK . . . We are one global player,” he says.
Freed from the idea that Kansai would venture abroad in step with its automotive customers, Mr Ishino has focused on three aims — each representing a striking break with mainstream Japanese corporate tradition and a higher degree of risk than paint companies tend to take.
The first has been to identify pockets of the world where middle classes are growing rapidly, along with housing and sophistication.
Unlike Japanese companies that have tended to look for markets with a record, he has targeted places where no major global company has yet bothered to light the way.
The problem with decorative paints, he says, is that it is a business where brand recognition is vital — and the name Kansai remains obscure.
“You can’t build brand in a day,” says Mr Ishino. “It takes 10 years, so that is what we are doing.” That time, he adds, is the lag he claims to have observed in emerging markets such as India and China, between the moment when major companies rush in with expectations of a boom and when the actual boom starts.
“It’s like being in China in 1995 before the boom in 2005,” Mr Ishino says. “If you can survive that time, you’ve got a brand in a big market . . . When we enter [emerging markets] we have to have a base for surviving 10 years.”
He is taking no chances with brand building: another move, in 2013, was to make Kansai a global sponsor of Manchester United Football Club.
“It is about brand awareness at this stage. Not recognition,” he says. The original three-year sponsorship deal, which allowed Kansai to describe itself as the “official paint partner of Manchester United”, was extended last week to 2019.
A second prong in Kansai’s global expansion has been to focus on offering markets something new — a relative rarity in the paint business. The company is leading the way with a line of colourless, odourless paints that repel mosquitoes and disable their bites.
The paint could become the prime example of using innovation to make a brand name known across the world’s malarial zones, says Mr Ishino.
The final revolution is perhaps the most daring: his decision to trust the local management of companies he has bought, and intends to buy in the future. Globalised Kansai, he says, will not have Japanese managers dotted around the world. It will instead support them via a series of virtual management gatherings of his local chieftains.
Mr Ishino partially quotes Deng Xiaoping, China’s late leader: “We have to be very rational. It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white so long as it is good at catching mice.
“We have no bad cats in Kansai. All good cats.”
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