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5 minutes with ... Mr Takao Watanabe, Managing Director of Goldwin Europe GmbH
With its idyllic mountains, countless hiking trails and diverse lake landscape, Bavaria is undoubtedly a popular holiday destination. One motto at home here is also: Working where others go on holiday. So it is not surprising that companies from the sports and lifestyle sector are also settling in Bavaria. Founded in 1950, the Japanese company Goldwin Inc. specialises in high-quality outdoor clothing and opened its first flagship store in Germany last year with the support of Invest in Bavaria in Munich. We talked to the managing director of Goldwin Europe GmbH, Mr Takao Watanabe, about the expansion to Bavaria, challenges regarding the pandemic as well as planned projects.
Mr Watanabe, opening the flagship store in Munich in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic was bound to be a huge challenge – especially in view of the numerous restrictions in both Germany and Japan. Can you please explain how you managed all this?
The opening of a store in Munich was a long-held wish and once we had found a property we started the preparations straight away. Looking back, I think the timing (mid-October 2020) was spot on, because it was in fact the only time it was even possible to open a store. The Tokyo head office is heavily involved in the business at the moment, so numerous business trips were required at the time of the opening. Nevertheless, we have been able to do as much as possible remotely with as few employees as possible. Of course, it was also very helpful that we met excellent and cooperative partners on site to set up the store and for the PR. We also conducted the hiring interviews primarily by video conference. There were only face-to-face interviews for the selection of the important position of managing director. Fortunately, we were able to recruit good employees.
Goldwin has mainly been active in Europe in Switzerland until now. Why did you opt for the Munich location in Bavaria?
The opening of the store in Munich is part of our global strategy to focus on the retail business of our original brand Goldwin. The store in Munich is our second store abroad. After opening our store in Tokyo in 2018, we had initially opened a store in San Francisco in 2019. We chose Munich as the location for our flagship store in Europe because we can present our completely revised Goldwin brand, whose collection ranges from skiing to outdoor and sports equipment, directly to customers there. Munich is located near the Alps and there are numerous opportunities and places to enjoy sports and the outdoors in all seasons. The city also has many inhabitants. In addition, the international sports trade fair ISPO is held there every year in summer and winter, so the region is close to sports in every respect. We therefore decided that Munich is a suitable centre for our European business.
Mr Watanabe, through the online business you have the opportunity to sell your goods all over Europe. Are you noticing a difference in buying behaviour in the different EU countries? For example, what is particularly popular with the French or the Italians and what is important for the Bavarian customer?
There are in fact regions where the European style is deeply rooted. This is particularly noticeable in the cut of the garments. Whether it’s tops or bottoms, a slim silhouette is standard in Europe. As you can imagine, this style is typically represented by Italy.
By the way, most orders in our online shop come from Germany, followed by Great Britain. We don’t follow fashions, but we do of course include trends. Our best-selling pants are a bit wider cut and it was very difficult to sell them in Europe. We often received feedback on the European style that men’s pants have to be slim-fitting to sell, for example in Italy or Switzerland. By contrast, the product was well received in Great Britain without any problems. But more and more of these pants with a cut that does not correspond to the European style are also being sold from season to season in Italy, Switzerland and Germany, so I have got the impression that good products do sell worldwide. One of our business partners in Munich (the owner of the shop is British), has been ordering the pants in question for several years. It was a slow seller at first, but it’s finally selling, which I’m happy about.
The COVID-19 crisis led to huge business losses in many sectors of the economy. What was it like in your line of work? What strategy did you follow to get through the crisis? Were you able to benefit from support from Bavarian authorities?
The coronavirus is hitting us very hard. The market for ski equipment in particular, one of our key areas, is a large market and all countries are at least dependent on domestic demand within Europe. Switzerland did in fact open its ski resorts, but only to its own citizens. Most other countries did not open their ski resorts due to the lockdown and shops in the resorts also remained closed. Even in countries that had opened, the situation was difficult. As you know, it snowed a lot and the conditions on the slopes were better than they have been in years. It’s a real shame. On the other hand, jogging and other outdoor activities that can be done alone in nature are booming. Thanks to our focus on the online business, the results exceeded our expectations. We opened the store last year on 16 October and looking back, I think that was the only time it was even possible. Unfortunately, it appears that we don’t have the benefit of government support, but I still think it was good to have opened last autumn.
How do Japanese business partners differ from European ones? Are there any peculiarities in the Bavarian way of doing business?
On the one hand I feel there are big differences, on the other hand I think it’s the same everywhere. Ultimately, it comes down to the connection between people. Isn’t that the case everywhere? I had the stereotypical image that all Germans are very diligent and punctual, but this is not the case. There are also many dynamic people living here. Sometimes I am surprised, of course (laughs). The fact that we were able to open the store almost as planned in the midst of the coronavirus crisis is probably a sign that the Bavarians work very meticulously. I could not have imagined that in any other European country.
What’s your next goal? What potential do you see in Bavaria and Germany? How are you implementing the Japanese trend “Mono uri yori koto uri” – i.e. “Don't sell goods, sell experiences” – in Europe as well?
First of all, our goal is to be successful with the store in Munich. Germany is vast and big and there are many big cities. Well-known sports manufacturers such as Adidas and Puma come from Germany. Bavaria is truly a place of business start-ups. I hope that we can raise the awareness of our brand in this region and that it will be well received. While it’s said that it’s important to “sell experiences, not goods,” I think both are equally important to build brand awareness and create a following based on stores. I think that the stores in particular are an important means of communication so that customers experience the brand and discover it for themselves. This is also in line with our business strategy in Japan, so I would like to create the best stores as a means that can be understood worldwide.
Invest in Bavaria supported you in the settlement process, what experience did you have with this?
I found out that this programme existed from Mitsui Düsseldorf. We visited Invest in Bavaria in July 2017 and have been advised and supported ever since. Even though they do not recommend specific companies from their neutral point of view, they have been tireless in providing us with the necessary information on business operations, community information, personal relationships, introduction to Japanese companies and the like. They even looked for vacant or new shop premises in the city for us and asked if they were suitable. I’m very grateful for that.
Finally, we’d like to ask you what you’ve liked most about Bavaria so far. Do you have a favourite place in Bavaria you can recommend to us?
Skiing in Garmisch, Neuschwanstein Castle in Füssen as the setting for the old film “The Great Escape”, sightseeing, canoeing on the lakes not far from Munich and much more. Bavaria has many beautiful places. My recommendation is Bayern Munich. However, since I am a basketball fan, I am not referring to the football team, but the Bayern Munich basketball team. I might also recommend watching a game at the Audi Dome sometime. They are not so well known in Germany, but they have a strong team and are really interesting! There are also matches against other European teams. Surfing on the river near Invest in Bavaria is also a spectac