The roots of Wolfson's success in Japan were planted in 1996  jap1


"Getting it right at the beginning is key to long term success in Japan", says Julian Hayes

Tokyo, Japan - Rainbow Bridge

Wolfson: First Steps in Japan  jap2


The Wolfson Microelectronics Institute was established at Edinburgh University in 1975. A decade later, two members of the team started a company of the same name, originally offering design services.  Convinced that the company’s own standard products were the key to long term sustainable growth, Wolfson branched out into product development in 1995. 



Looking to Asia as a potential marketplace was an early decision for the company, as it was here that all the action was taking place in the field of consumer electronics.


Wolfson’s focus at the time was on digital imaging, and the specific market the company had in mind was Taiwan. After all, the PC and peripherals business was dominated by the Taiwanese at the time, so making Taiwan a springboard for Asian expansion seemed a sensible move. Another compelling advantage was that business processes and decision-making seemed to take less time in Taiwan than in Japan or Korea, though this was not an excuse to avoid either of the latter countries. Success in Japan was always a medium and long term target as it was and still is the headquarters for many of the world’s leading consumer electronics companies.



Julian Hayes, Wolfson’s VP of marketing at the time explained, it was important to develop  face-to-face contact. “We became involved with Electronics Link Asia (ELA) in the mid 1990s as we considered Japan, and it was at this point that we came to understand the importance of being there, in person, with the right people in the organisations we were hoping to do business with,” he said.  “It doesn’t matter how good your product is, you need this personal contact to build the rapport and mutual trust that cannot come from long-distance telephone calls.

   “ELA’s Peter Bacon started working with us, not to sell directly in the Japanese market, but more to help us understand how this particular market worked and what Japanese companies wanted. We were excited by the technology we had on offer, but not so arrogant as to believe it was necessarily the ‘perfect solution’ for Japan. Before making any claim like that, we wanted to understand exactly what Japanese companies might be looking for.”



Appointing a really good distributor was one of the priority items on Wolfson’s list, according to Julian Hayes. “Speaking excellent English was important for us, but the distributor needed to prove his worth by proving he had access to the potential customers at the appropriate level. It’s easy to think, when you meet a charming and apparently knowledgeable distributor at an Embassy reception, that you’ve found the perfect partner, but this can be a dangerous, ‘hit and miss’ approach, as Peter Bacon pointed out to us,” he said.


Peter helped the Wolfson team understand that speaking English was not the key thing; but access to the right level of people was. “You’re under a great deal of pressure to make headway, so where do you focus your time and energy? The right partner, targeting the right person at the right level, is vital,” added Julian.


   Patience was a virtue. Wolfson clearly believed that Japan was important to its future. With Japan keen to push the technology barriers, it was important that Wolfson was really seen to be there, as a leader not a follower. The message needed to come through  to the Japanese that the Wolfson product was the best in class


  Establishing a trading relationship allowed Wolfson to build trust with Japanese companies, according to Julian Hayes. “They were able to show their trust in us to deliver what we promised, and we grew to understand  how Japanese companies worked. Our strategy was to make the initial approach to the engineering department, and to build trust at a high level in the organisation . Engineers don’t want to take risks, and they need their actions supported by executives further up the organisation,” he said.



  ELA brokered the links for the Wolfson team, and the Japanese companies grew to trust and believe in them as a credible supplier. Julian Hayes explained the importance of accepting the first order, even if it was relatively modest. “Peter Bacon advised us that, when an opportunity came up, even if it might not be as big as we were hoping for, we should take it to build trust.

   “He was right. Our first success at one of the largest consumer electronics companies in Japan was for a modest order (5,000 pieces) for a wireless headphone system.  We lost money on that order, but the following year we were successful in winning a 50,000 piece design-in   to go into a PDA.  That same design team then went onto to develop a portable game system, and turned to Wolfson to provide the solution, one that gave us a five million piece order in the first year alone. It might have taken three years to get there, but that first small order proved the vital foundation for developing business relationship,” said Julian.



A key point for Wolfson was to understand that quality time, face to face in front of a customer, was about more than being there once every six months to tell them about our latest product. ELA provided a vital bridgehead before the organisation opened its own office in Japan, and helped Wolfson people with meeting customers at the right level and staying in regular contact. 



In conclusion, Julian believes that it was the long-term commitment that mattered. “If we had looked at the business in terms of its profitability, we would have probably turned it down. But our strategy was ultimately successful, because we were patient and accepted that we were in it for the long term,” he concluded.



ELA’s Peter Bacon comments: “When I was introducing the Wolfson team in Japan, I knew they came with world-class audio technology. This was a key point for Wolfson. Japanese companies are not necessarily the biggest, but everything they do is of the highest quality. As a supplier coming from outside Japan, Wolfson needed something special that would help them stand out from  existing suppliers. This, combined with their commitment to long-term relationships and their openness throughout the early years of the development process, made their success.  They were rewarded, initially with modest orders, but latterly with a much more significant and profitable business, which they thoroughly deserved.”



Anyone contemplating doing business with Japan should be prepared to show patience. Nothing comes quickly, even if you have the world’s best product.

·         You also have to establish face presence, and understand that every meeting you have can be an investment for the future. Japanese customers want to establish a credible, trustworthy relationship.

·         Lastly, it’s worth repeating to yourself that you MUST deliver on all your promises. 

Timeline  jap3

1975  Wolfson Microelectronics Institute is established

1985  Company of the same name begins trading

1996  Wolfson starts working with Electronics Link Asia and Peter Bacon

May 1998  Julian Hayes joins Wolfson. Initial plans are developed to look at exporting to Japan.

Later 1998  Wolfson wins an innovation award from the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry, recognising its capability.

Early 2000  Wolfson opens its first overseas office in Taiwan

Late 2000 Wolfson opens its own office in Japan, with two sales people and a field applications engineer

2002   First sale confirmed to major consumer electronics company

2004   Launch of portable games console in Japan