Spotlight on Team Japan

A global economic leader and the long white cloud: lessons from a pioneer of Japanese business

Time to read: 5 mins

Annette Azuma

Annette Azuma

Though travel is impossible at the moment, Japan is in the spotlight more than ever for New Zealand businesses. As the COVID-19 pandemic impacted supply and demand around the world, two-way trade actually increased between New Zealand and Japan during 2020, making it one of our few growing trade relationships during a difficult time. Olympics or no Olympics, interest has never been higher in this part of the world.

Japan is also keen to see more foreign investment on its shores, establishing a Start Up Visa scheme in many cities to encourage entrepreneurs to set up shop in the country. When the US pulled out of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), it was Japan who took the lead on bringing it to fruition.

"Japan has been investing in New Zealand for more than 70 years and the New Zealand government is recognising the importance of Japan as a trading partner and champion of the West as the world’s economic power base shifts to Asia," says Annette Azuma, head of Team Japan at Baker Tilly Staples Rodway.

This hunger for international trade is great news for New Zealand businesses with an eye for new opportunities. In 2021, Annette celebrates 14 years since Team Japan started, supporting Japanese businesses and high net worth individuals with tax, auditing, compliance and business advice and helping New Zealand businesses succeed in the Japanese environment.


The origins of Team Japan

The growth of Team Japan since 2007 from just one person to eight, including five native speakers, underlines the increasing opportunities for businesses at both ends of the Pacific.

Annette explains how it all began.

"For nine years I was busy bringing up my boys, working part-time and I needed a new challenge. Then the managing partner of Staples Rodway, as it was at the time, was due to travel to Japan to negotiate a new partnership with our broader Baker Tilly network. As I spoke fluent Japanese, had dealings with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE), and have Japanese family, I saw an opportunity to add value to the trip and they agreed. When it was cancelled due to the outbreak of SARS, I realised I didn’t want to let that opportunity go. So I requested a secondment to Baker Tilly’s new Japan office," Annette says.

Annette Azuma with Team Japan

With her young family in tow, Annette spent several months immersed in the Japanese business world, building both important networks and confidence.

Inspired by her experience, Annette campaigned to establish a specialist Japan team at Baker Tilly Staples Rodway on her return to New Zealand, with a goal of making it the pre-eminent firm for Japanese business in the country. She named it Team Japan in a nod to our sailing heroes, Team New Zealand, leveraging our strong reputation for sporting prowess in Japan. TEAM also stands for "Together Everyone Achieves More", a reflection of the Japanese culture of working collaboratively.

"The Japanese have a saying: Sit on a rock for three years. That means let yourself be observed for three years and be patient, and you will build people’s trust. And with Team Japan it worked. I steadily built up the client base, put myself forward for a food and beverage trade mission to Japan with NZTE and took on Japanese team members to build relationships further."

A mark of that plan’s success was being named the official Auckland, New Zealand agent for Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO) in 2020. "It’s a huge honour and that’s a culmination of all the work we’ve engaged in over the years to foster business relationships and partnerships between New Zealand and Japan," Annette says.


"Start with perfect and get better from there"

Annette acknowledges how fortunate she’s been to have chosen to study Japanese all those years ago at Dunedin’s Kaikorai Valley College, the first school in New Zealand to offer the language. "I also studied French, German and English, but Japanese was so different and complex, and I guess I like a challenge. Even now I like to do something different from everyone else. Maybe it comes from my childhood playing marbles and cards against my dad and two older sisters. He would never go easy on us kids, so I grew up quite competitive!"

Her success with her business clients has taught her not to hide her skills in her professional career either, and she is now a mentor for women in business through Global Women and the International Women’s Federation, championing those who, like her, have lacked the ambition to put themselves forward. Her story is a great example of how personal experience can lead to great business opportunities for people willing to take on a new challenge.

Ben Grooten, Tom Grooten, Annette Azuma & Takashi Oku

That same philosophy can be seen in Annette’s zest for connecting innovators with the growing number of partnership opportunities with Japan. She says it’s no longer just about New Zealand dairy and meat, but increasingly hydro and geothermal energy products, biotech and collaboration with iwi. In recent years, Yamaha has invested $12 million in apple-picking automation company Robotics Plus, which uses Japanese technology and New Zealand innovation and assets to export beyond our borders. Panasonic Homes, a subsidiary of the Japanese technology giant, recently partnered with Mike Greer on prefabricating houses with a view to speeding up the delivery of more affordable homes in New Zealand.

To build these kinds of successful relationships with Japanese partners, Annette says patience, respect and attention to detail are the essential ingredients.

"Trust and loyalty are very important. Relationships are respected over the long term for that reason. But you will be expected to have meticulous attention to detail. There’s another saying: Start with perfect and get better from there."


To find out more about Team Japan go here

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