Nichimen Corporation - Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on Nichimen Corporation

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History of Nichimen Corporation

Nichimen Corporation, a member of The Sanwa Bank group, is one of Japan's largest general trading companies, known as sogo shosha. The company manages overseas offices in 93 cities worldwide and divides its operations into the following groups: machinery; metals and construction; chemicals, plastics, and energy; textiles; and foodstuffs, lumber, and general merchandise. Nichimen, like other general trading companies, deals globally with a wide variety of product lines, through a large number of domestic and overseas branches concentrating on both import and export. In addition, the company organizes business ventures, often supplying technology and machinery as well as creating markets for the finished products.

First Formation of General Trading Companies in Late 19th Century

General trading companies made their first appearance during the Meiji empire, that lasted from 1868 to 1912. They were formed at the request of the government, which wanted to end the 200-year economic isolation that had characterized the preceding Tokugawa shogunate. Soon after their rise to power, the Meiji rulers noted that their external trade was in the control of foreigners; that international trade regulations, as well as foreigners' languages and cultural backgrounds were unfamiliar to most of the Japanese business community; and that even domestic documents had to be passed through foreign hands. To eradicate such foreign domination, the government invited a few large, experienced holding companies to organize subsidiaries capable of introducing modern business practices and technology to Japan.

In the World War I years, these holding companies came to be known as zaibatsu (wealthy groups). They were family-controlled industrial and financial groups, which were classified as combinations of different companies dealing in goods and services as diverse as banking, shipping, and trading.

By the 1890s, the modernization program had transformed the Japanese economy, and the country's entrepreneurs were ready for international ventures. First to enter the arena was the cotton trade. In earlier times, merchants had sold handspun cotton and hand-woven cloth. In Europe and the United States, machine-made textiles had been produced for some years. At the dawn of the Meiji era, the foreign merchants lost no time in signing commercial treaties with Japan, so that they could export large quantities of textiles and cottons into Japan. This practice soon threatened the domestic cotton industry, which met the challenge in part by establishing its own spinning mills, though supplies of domestic raw cotton were still meager.

Founded to Trade Cotton in 1892

It was in this business climate that Nippon Menka Kaisha (Japan Cotton Company) was established in 1892 by Japanese cotton spinners and merchants. The company's capital in 1892 was ¥100,000, increasing tenfold over the following decade under the directorship of Kita Matazo, a legendary entrepreneur.

Nippon Menka initially imported cotton through exclusive foreign agents. The company gradually started opening its own foreign offices, however. Victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 brought new foreign export markets in Korea and China, and in Manchuria, where the company also started spinning factories and cotton-ginning operations. Nippon Menka opened a Shanghai branch in 1903 and another in Hankow the following year, to export to China the cotton yarn produced by the rapidly expanding Japanese spinning industry. Now a large company with several overseas locations, it also was able to start trading between foreign offices, establishing Menka Gesellschaft in Bremen, Germany, and doing routine business in Liverpool, in London, and in Milan. By 1910 the company even established a U.S. subsidiary called the Japan Cotton Company in Fort Worth, Texas, to give Nippon Menka a gateway to the raw cotton trade.

The World War I years spurred company efforts even further. As European countries with more pressing priorities stopped exporting their wares, Japanese products gained popularity. Seizing the moment, the trading companies began to use their growing expertise to diversify their product lines, increase their markets for raw materials, and invest larger amounts in manufacturing operations.

The company also developed a greater international network by opening more overseas facilities. Following the lucrative wartime growth, Nippon Menka opened its first South Seas office in 1917, with a product line that included cotton cloth, cement, and veneers. It was so successful that more South Seas facilities were opened in 1924.

The company also developed an interest in the South American wool trade during the war years. In 1919 it began to buy wool from Argentina and Uruguay, leading it to open an office in Buenos Aires. The next field of operations was Burma, from where the company began to direct its silk trade operations in 1919, in tandem with other ventures concentrating on cereals, rice, and cotton. Soon, the Burma office expanded its line of interests to include spinning machines, electric fans, beer, and canned goods. Other fields of operation were facilities for rice cleaning and oil manufacturing.

African operations began in 1916, when a representative went to Mombasa, Kenya, from Bombay to trade in raw cotton and cotton cloth. Chinese operations likewise gathered momentum when Nippon Menka started to sell cottons there and to export Manchurian soybeans. Also in China, the company did purchasing for the Nikka Oil Company and acted as a sole agency for a hemp company. Expanding into other activities, the company's India operations started vertical integration. To allow it to complete all operations from buying through the shipping of cotton bales, the Indian office began to operate ginning and compressing factories.

Difficulties in the 1920s

The post-World War I boom collapsed in 1920, and the world slipped into a two-year recession. Although the recession of the early 1920s appeared not to affect Nippon Menka, whose paid-in capital stood at ¥26 million in 1925, with growth largely from the war years, the company was, in fact, losing money.

With the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, the company problems began to show. Losses were ¥39 million in 1929, ¥2.5 million in 1930, and ¥1.2 million in 1931, for a total nearing ¥43 million. Nippon Menka may have hidden losses from shareholders during the 1920s, but eventually it had to report its financial difficulties.

The company's fortunes declined for two reasons. Competitors, who initially had been loath to brave the heat and uncharted trade routes of cotton-supplying nations such as India, proved to be enthusiastic traders when ways around these inconveniences had been established. Furthermore, during the 1920s, several small spinning companies had merged into larger companies, and these had formed themselves into the Japan Spinners' Association, a production cartel that was capable of gearing production to earn reasonable profits in bad times.

Nippon Menka was a large concern, well able to diversify into fields other than cotton. Along with another general trading company, it organized the production of printed fabric for the Far Eastern markets. Rayon was produced and sold in the same way, and the silk business it had established during World War I was expanded. By the mid-1930s, Nippon Menka was an established textile trader, with overseas offices in several locations.

Despite the heavy losses in the beginning of the Great Depression, the company bounced back quickly. The decline in U.S. and European manufacturing brought opportunity to Japanese traders. One important boost came in 1931, when Japan seized Manchuria from China, establishing the state of Manchukuo in March 1932. Immediately the Japanese government encouraged investment there, as well as the development of heavy industries such as iron and steel, oil, and cement.

For the rest of the 1930s Japan turned more to a wartime economy, expecting war with China. Expectation became fact in 1937, and the government instituted strict control of stocks and import-export prices, especially in the case of war-related products like oil. In other developments, Nippon Menka was assigned by the army to manage factories producing flour, matches, and starch. To show the broadened nature of its business, Nippon Menka Kaisha changed its name in 1943 to Nichimen Jitsugyo (Nichimen Enterprise).

Developed into Top Trading Company Following World War II

When World War II brought defeat to Japan, economic policies were set by the Allied powers, who confiscated all foreign assets and forbade foreign trade. Despite its capital of ¥30 million, the company lost foreign assets worth an estimated ¥36 million during this period. In 1947 the Allied policies gradually began to relax to the point where goods could be sold on the foreign market by correspondence, although Japanese traders were still not permitted to go overseas. By 1949 export price regulations on textiles were removed, and Japanese traders went to all countries open to them.

The Allied occupation also saw the dissolution of the zaibatsu. At war's end the four largest zaibatsu controlled one-fourth of the Japanese economy. In the interest of economic democracy, these holding companies were broken up to give other businesses foreign trade opportunities. The trading companies still occupied a weak position in relation to manufacturers, who had been in government favor throughout the war years and the inevitable period of shortages that followed.

Nichimen's independence from zaibatsu affiliation now paid handsome dividends, for the company became one of the country's top-ten trading companies. In 1951 it captured 4.3 percent of the country's foreign trade. By 1958 its share had grown to six percent.

Along with the other trading companies, Nichimen had difficult postwar problems to face. Goods for foreign trade were in short supply. There was a dearth of export trade itself, for the lucrative China market had been lost to communism. Silk, once a principal export, was being replaced by nylon.

Relationship with Sanwa Bank Began in 1955

Nichimen and other trading companies needed extensive loans to stay afloat. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry decided to help those trading companies that were handling most of the country's international trade. Because these companies also wanted to take advantage of growing domestic opportunities, credit sources able to supply large yen loans became a necessity. Nichimen, previously content with the Bank of Tokyo's international lending ability, now needed another backer. In 1955 Nichimen forged what would become a long-term relationship with Osaka-based Sanwa Bank. Sanwa agreed to finance all of Nichimen's domestic business.

The Sanwa Bank was a non-zaibatsu institution that had gained considerable influence during the occupation because it was exempt from the Allies' order to disband. One of the country's largest, it soon became the center of a large conglomerate, gaining further power through the usual banking practice of granting lower-interest loans to selected companies. Nichimen's bond with Sanwa proved both profitable and permanent. Nichimen could not, however, become Sanwa's international general trading arm because that position was already held by Iwai & Co.

To further strengthen domestic ties, Nichimen absorbed two textile dealers, Maruei & Co. in 1954 and Tazuke & Co. in 1960. Nichimen also made efforts to diversify into foodstuffs, wood, pulp, and machinery by networking through its foreign contacts. Extending its interest in industrial equipment, in 1963 the company acquired Takada & Co., a trader in machinery. In 1957 Nichimen Jitsugyo became Nichimen Co., Ltd.

Expanded Well Beyond Textiles by 1970

Between 1955 and 1970 the Japanese economy saw rapid growth. Nichimen enjoyed great export growth, which by 1970 encompassed steel, electronic products, motor vehicles, and fibers--a considerable expansion over the textiles that had formed the nucleus of export operations before 1955. Although the general trading companies still served steelmakers and shipbuilders, most manufacturers began to purchase their own supplies and market their own products.

In 1955 metal sales constituted 15 percent of Nichimen's operations, with textiles making up an additional 57 percent, foods and chemicals 21 percent, and miscellaneous seven percent. By 1965 the balance had changed--metals then constituted 28 percent of sales, textiles 36 percent, foods seven percent, and miscellaneous products 19 percent. Eleven years later, metals and machinery had become the most important group, accounting for 47 percent of operations. Textiles made up 18 percent of the total, with food and chemicals accounting for 26 percent and miscellaneous sales accounting for nine percent.

Nichimen's greatest growth came in steel. Like other general trading companies, Nichimen handled raw materials, purchased fabricated steel products, secured overseas markets for finished products, and handled the details of export. In addition, Nichimen was leasing supermarkets, negotiating agreements with foreign manufacturers looking for Japanese markets, and becoming more involved in farming, poultry, and beef ventures.

As a result of these activities, Nichimen's annual sales rose from ¥305.6 billion in 1960 to ¥777.8 billion by decade's end, rising still higher by 1976 to ¥1.81 trillion. Business activities of the early 1970s included a Japanese joint venture with National Biscuit Company (Nabisco). In 1970 Nabisco took 45 percent ownership, giving ten percent ownership to Nichimen and 45 percent to Yamazaki Baking Company, in exchange for the right to use the Nabisco trademark.

The increase in Nichimen's product lines and its geographical spread was then allowing the general trading companies to organize complex projects cutting across many different industries. Ocean resource development, urban projects, and financial ventures were just three of many areas in which Nichimen first was able to create demands for a widening array of products and then to supply them through different affiliates.

Early 1970s Criticism of Trading Companies

In the early 1970s the Japanese economy began to slow down, and the government started to curb trading companies' stock holdings in response to increasing criticism of the firms. They were accused of stock speculation, of hoarding imported necessities, and of tax evasion. This situation came to a head with the 1973 oil crisis. In self defense, Nichimen and other trading companies decided to shift their emphasis from high-volume sales to social responsibility and efficient management, by adopting codes of behavior that promised ethical conduct in all business dealings.

Nichimen's search for global reach brought the company into many different countries, where they participated in joint ventures. One project, a joint venture between Nichimen and certain other Japanese companies and Deepsea Ventures, Inc., a subsidiary of the U.S. company Tenneco, Inc., mined manganese nodules containing copper, nickel, and cobalt from the Pacific Ocean floor.

By 1976 Nichimen had subsidiaries or branches in London, Hong Kong, Rangoon, Calcutta, Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Burma. There also was a vast computerized communications system connecting company offices in most of the world's business centers. These included new additions in Caracas; Lima; Sandakan, Malaysia; and notably, in Warsaw and Moscow, for Nichimen was doing more business in Eastern Europe.

By the late 1970s Nichimen faced harder times. A soaring yen, climbing 25 percent in the year between July 1977 and July 1978, oil price rises in 1973 and 1978, and serious competition from South Korea, Argentina, and other steel- and textile-producing countries with low labor and currency costs brought the accustomed low profit margins even lower.

Undaunted, Nichimen began to look for new avenues, many in developing countries such as China and parts of the Soviet Union. For Nichimen, activities included the construction of a New Zealand sawmill in a joint venture with another Japanese company, a textile-dyeing joint venture in China, and contracts totaling ¥2 billion for the first stages of a water- and sewerage-system modernization program in Giza, Egypt.

New effort also went into third-country trade--overseas business ventures in which the Japanese company sold the products of another country in yet a third country. Vigorous foreign operations did not curb the development of domestic ventures such as condominium and office block construction, jewelry imports, and retailing. Other operations concentrated on importing; lumber came from the Soviet Union and foodstuffs came from Thailand and China.

In 1982 Nichimen Co., Ltd. changed its name to Nichimen Corporation. By the end of the 1980s, the company had opened new offices in Madras, Barcelona, and various cities in the Soviet Union, bringing to 85 its total number of geographical divisions. There were also 129 major subsidiaries and affiliates.

1990s Troubles

The bursting of the late 1980s Japanese economic bubble led to prolonged difficulties for Nichimen in the 1990s. Nearly all of the sogo shosha had diversified aggressively into financial investments during the speculative bubble years, in large part because their traditional activity of marginally profitable commodity trading had been in a deep decline for years, a development compounded by a trend toward Japanese companies handling their international operations themselves. In desperation the trading companies built up large stock portfolios and became hooked on the revenues they could gain through arbitrage (or zaiteku, as it is known in Japan). Once the bubble burst, the sogo shosha were left with huge portfolios whose worth had plummeted; all of the trading companies were forced eventually to liquidate much of their stock holdings.

As it cleaned up its portfolio in the 1990s, Nichimen also sought out ways to become more profitable, leading to the implementation starting in April 1996 of a three-year management plan called CREATE 98. A key aspect of the plan was a shift away from the declining area of what the company called "soft" businesses, notably those endeavors that involve logs and lumber, foodstuffs, and chemicals. Nichimen traditionally had achieved much of its profits from these areas. CREATE 98 called for a shift to "hard" businesses, that is, those relating to machinery, steel, and construction. Coupled with this shift was a second one in which the company endeavored to move away from projects in which it acted merely as a financial intermediary toward activities where it was much more deeply involved. Another important aim of the plan was to increase the overall level of investments in new businesses to a level more in line with that of other leading sogo shosha.

These objectives were evident in a number of initiatives that a more aggressive Nichimen undertook in the mid-1990s. In December 1996 the company announced that it had formed a joint venture with China's largest general trader (China National Cereals, Oils & Foodstuffs Import and Export Corporation) that aimed to achieve US $5 billion in annual sales in food, machinery, and electrical goods. Nichimen in early 1997 joined with AES Corporation, a U.S.-based independent power producer, and Grupo Hermes, a leading Mexican industrial group, in winning a contract to build a 484-megawatt gas-fired combined-cycle power plant on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. The plant was the first privately run power plant to supply Mexico's national grid. In June 1997 Nichimen, along with Mitsubishi Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., won a US $300 million contract to build an 830-megawatt thermal power plant northwest of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In fiscal 1997, the first year of the CREATE 98 plan, Nichimen already was seeing some positive results, notably an 8.7 percent increase in gross trading profit--the main criterion upon which Nichimen planned to measure the success of the plan&mdashø ¥119.31 billion (US $961.4 billion). This increase was the first one in four fiscal years. Unfortunately, the Asian economic crisis, which erupted in 1997, threatened to derail this nascent turnaround, as Nichimen, like nearly all of the sogo shosha, was very active throughout Asia, including such trouble spots as Indonesia, Korea, and Thailand.

Principal Subsidiaries: Nichimen America Inc.; Granplex, Inc. (U.S.A.); Nichimen Canada Inc.; Nichimen de Mexico S.A. de C.V.; Nichimen do Brasil Ltda. (Brazil); Nichimen Co. (Argentina) S.A.; Nichimen Europe plc (U.K.); Nichimen Co., (Iran) Ltd.; A.A. Al-Qatami's Sons Trading Co., Ltd. (Kuwait); Nichimen Middle East F.Z.E. (Dubai); Nichimen (China) Co., Ltd.; Nichimen Shanghai Ltd. (China); Nichimen Co. (Hong Kong) Ltd.; Nichimen Orient Wear Ltd. (China); Nichimen Korea Ltd.; Nichimen (Singapore) Pte Ltd.; Nichimen Australia Limited; Nichimen Co. (New Zealand) Ltd.

Principal Divisions: Machinery Group: Plant & Project Division; Electronics Division; Aircraft & Vessels Division; Industrial Machinery Division; Motor Vehicle & Heavy Machinery Division. Metals & Construction Group: Iron & Steel Division; Nonferrous Metals Division; Construction Division. Chemicals, Plastics & Energy Group: Basic Chemicals Division; Fine Chemicals Division; Plastics Division; Energy Division. Textiles Group: Home Furnishing & Industrial Textiles Division; Apparel Division. Foodstuffs, Lumber & General Merchandise Group: Grains & Feeds Division; Foods Division; Lumber Division; General Merchandise Division.

Additional Details

Further Reference

Iwao, Ichiishi, "Sogo Shosha: Meeting New Challenges," Journal of Japanese Trade & Industry, January/February 1995, pp. 16-18.Rosario, Louise do, "Lose and Learn: Japan's Firms Pay Price of Financial Speculation," Far Eastern Economic Review, June 17, 1993, pp. 60-61.Yonekawa, Shin'ichi, ed., General Trading Companies: A Comparative and Historical Study, Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 1990.Yonekawa, Shin'ichi, and Hideki Yoshi Hara, eds., Business History of General Trading Companies, Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1987.Yoshihara, Kunio, Sogo Shosha: The Vanguard of the Japanese Economy, Tokyo: Oxford University Press, 1982.Young, Alexander, The Sogo Shosha: Japan's Multinational Trading Companies, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1979.

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