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Meet Satoshi ‘Sam’ Kakuda, Alabama’s economic development point man in Japan

TOKYO, Japan — Before Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley arrived in Japan for this week’s economic mission and after he leaves on Friday, the state will continue to have a voice in Japan.

For years, Satoshi “Sam” Kakuda, director of the Tokyo office for the Alabama Department of Commerce, has listened to the needs of Japanese companies and told them about the benefits operating in Alabama. Since joining the Commerce Department team in 2006, Kakuda has assisted in creating more than 9,000 jobs for Alabama workers and a capital investment of more than $3 billion. (Read more about the major impact of Japanese companies have had on Alabama’s economy.)

Kakuda’s role is to promote the state as a location for Japanese investment in the U.S., and to assist with ongoing relationships with Japanese companies operating in Alabama. Prior to joining the Department of Commerce team, Kakuda worked as senior trade advisor of the Japan External Trade Organization, an agency of the Japanese government that promotes international trade between Japan and foreign countries. That experience, paired with his more than 30 years at Sony Corp., makes him the ideal liaison between Alabama and Japan.

“If we didn’t have an office in Japan, we wouldn’t have as many as 60 Japanese companies that now call Alabama home,” said David Hutchinson, who served in various roles at the Alabama Department of Commerce for 25 years before retiring in 2012 to become director of the Butler County Economic Development Commission.

Hutchinson worked closely with Kakuda, and the two became good friends during their work with the Commerce Department and its predecessor, the Alabama Development Office. Kakuda’s English and Japanese language skills are very useful for communicating with Japanese executives, Hutchinson said. Anyone in this role needs business, social and cultural knowledge, and Kakuda has all three. He “was the perfect match for us and still is,” Hutchinson said.

Just before Governor Bentley’s arrival in Japan for economic development meetings this week, Kakuda answered a few questions for Made in Alabama about the state’s relationship with Japan and its companies.

Q: When you meet with a Japanese company, what do you tell them about Alabama to make them consider it as a destination for possible investment?

A: Alabama helps companies through the teamwork of state government, utility companies, academic institutions and local communities to meet their needs. I am very proud of this team and the work they do. We don’t just talk good things at the time of the recruiting those companies — we stay close with those companies caring for how they achieve their business objectives in our state.

Q: What are the most important factors that Japanese companies consider when deciding which U.S. state to move to?

A: It depends on the types of the companies, but there are some consistent trends. Companies are looking at having a “shorter supply chain” (ease of access to their customers, major interstate highways, transportation terminals), thus lowering transportation cost and time. In some cases, companies also want to be closer to the port for importing the materials for their production.

Q: Does the success that Toyota and Honda enjoy in Alabama give the state a stamp of approval?

A: Yes.

Q: How many Japanese companies do you meet with in a year?

A: Speaking on average, our contacts have been 60 to 100 companies a year. It depends on our yearly business development strategy. But generally speaking, our ways for making company contacts are through the annual Alabama team visits to Japan, trade shows and if a company contacts us for information through the Alabama Department of Commerce Japan Office website. In some cases when we (the team in Alabama or the Japan office) find news articles saying a company plans to invest in the U.S., we quickly make a cold call to contact that company and provide information about our state.

Q: What kind of companies are interested in Alabama?

A: Obviously, the top industrial sector is automobile.

Q: Do they know anything about Alabama?

A: Yes, they know that Alabama and the states adjacent to our state have many OEM (original equipment manufacturer) plants and their supporting suppliers.

Q: What do the Japanese companies operating in Alabama like most about the state?

A: They like that Alabama is a right to work state. They also like our seamless supports for labor recruitment and development support.

Q: What do Japanese companies find different about the state once they move here that they didn’t think of before?

A: Generally speaking, I hear that they have found Alabama to be easier to live in than expected. For example, these days we have better access to the Oriental foods. But the most important part is our friendly people.

Q: What types of Alabama products are most in demand in Japan?

A: Export statistics show that chemical products are in high demand.

Q: Do you ever visit Alabama?

A: I have lived in Montgomery for three years and have traveled to many places in the state. Since taking this job about seven years ago, I have been visiting Alabama two or three times a year.

Q: What are your favorite things about the state?

A: My favorite things in Alabama are well described in the lyrics below. I love to play golf with the friends in Alabama. Also, Alabamians are so proud of what the lyrics listed below mean:

Alabama your beautiful sunlight
your fields of cerecea potatoes and corn

Alabama your crimson red clover
All mingled around the old place I was born.

Alabama your hills and your valleys
Your creeks with laughter as onward they flow
Alabama so sweet in the springtime
Sweet ferns and wild flowers and winter with snow.

Alabama so sweet to my mem’ry
You shine like a light on a beautiful hill
Alabama in days of my childhood
I labored and toiled at the old sorghum mill

Alabama when red leaves are failing
I roam through your pastures with fences of rail
Alabama when ‘possums are crawling
And hound dogs are howling and wagging their tails.

Alabama your beautiful highways
All curved through the mountains where love ones do wait
Alabama your golden rod flower;
And the “Welcome home’ sign hanging over the gate

Alabama to me you are callin’
My footsteps are haltered no longer to stray
Alabama you hold all I long for
You hold all I love so I’m coming today

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