Two years ago, Hong Kong-based Vega Technology opened its first office in Japan to provide high-end audiovisual systems to multinational and Japanese companies. Founded in 1986, Vega started out as a distributor of audiovisual equipment and is now one of the largest audiovisual integrators in Asia, with 20 offices across 13 countries.
Heading the Tokyo office is Richard Johns, president of Vega Project KK. Born in Papua New Guinea, of Australian parents, and brought up in Australia, Johns originally came to Japan in 1993 to learn Japanese and had no real intention of staying more than one or two years, but as often happens, this extended into many years.
Over the past 20 years, Johns has worked for a non-government organization that conducts world cruises, for a toy company as a sales/marketing manager, as a squash coach, for a market research company, and for a company from the UK that conducts strategy implementation and post-entry support services for companies entering the Japan market.
Johns said he has always had a keen interest in audiovisual technologies, particularly in audio, being an amateur musician. Joining Vega as its first country manager for Japan seemed to be a natural progression.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros catches up with Johns at the Vega Japan office in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward.
Vega opened its office in Japan in 2011. Did the March 11 disaster make it tough for you?
Not as tough as it might have been. We were fortunate after the disaster to land a sizable project with an IT company. That included work not only in Japan, but also other offices around Asia. We have since grown our customer base and also had a good year in 2012, so we are doing well.
What does Vega provide?
We provide a comprehensive range of audiovisual services, from system design, installation, managed services, space planning, event management and consulting, to maintenance and support of audiovisual systems.
One of our key offerings is providing videoconferencing systems that allow users to feel as if the meeting is actually being held “face to face,” allowing companies to save real money on corporate travel for employees and executives. To get access to high definition videoconferencing systems, companies have traditionally had to invest in large up-front payments for infrastructure. Vega, however, is removing these barriers and helping to drive demand by making high definition videoconferencing more affordable and easy to adopt for any type of business.
We work closely with companies like Cisco, to provide consumer market friendly versions of TelePresence, enabling us to sell not only to MNCs, but to a much wider small/medium size business user market.
How well known is the name Vega?
Although we are not yet well known in Japan, Vega is very well known in other parts of Asia as we are one of the largest, if not the largest, audiovisual integrator in Asia. Because we represent a large number of companies in many different regions in Asia, many customers want us to provide the same high quality installation in Tokyo. We are relatively new in Japan, but we already have a good track record, so companies that already deal with us in other regions are confident we can provide the same high quality service in Japan.
Who are your clients?
About 90% are foreign multinationals, including many banks. A lot of our multinational clients have global standards, and will often have core system designs, but we provide value-added system design advice based on specific needs. We also modify the systems accordingly to ensure they meet the requirements of the end users locally.
We work closely with a number of different vendors. In particular, we are trying to develop closer relationships with architects locally so they understand what we are able to offer. Often, the audiovisual side is an afterthought when designing an office. However, it should be thought of earlier to ensure any audiovisual specific requirements are met (e.g. wall reinforcement, integration of the audiovisual system into the existing building design, etc).
In addition to audiovisual systems, we also provide space planning advice, including the installation of fully integrated booking systems which can save companies a lot of money by optimizing the use of their meeting rooms and hot desk space.
What about Japanese clients?
We are starting to get more Japanese clients. Although the adoption rate of state-of-the-art videoconferencing systems by Japanese companies is still fairly low, the use of videoconferencing as a communication tool is starting to gain greater acceptance. Face-to-face meetings are still a big part of Japanese culture, and although this can never be truly replaced, as the price points drop and adoption becomes easier, Japanese companies are starting to understand the benefits of videoconferencing.
Part of the education process is ensuring that companies fully understand the benefits. We’ll be holding more events where we can demonstrate the technology, emphasizing how it can save on travel costs and improve efficiency through internal communication and workflow. There is a huge untapped market here in Japan and that is why we place importance on having bilingual staff. We are also launching a new product suite that will make it very simple to adopt high definition videoconferencing without the need for huge upfront costs.
Do you advertise much?
No, we haven’t had the need to yet. We operate in a niche market where specific expertise is a must and responsiveness to customer requests is critical. We focus on ensuring that our existing customers are fully satisfied with our service and try not to spread ourselves too thin. As far as I know, we are the only global audiovisual provider that allows our customers to use a single vendor across all of Asia, the U.S. and the UK. A lot of our business has been through referrals from other Vega branches and existing customers. One of our strengths is that we can leverage our international presence to coordinate and fulfill video and audiovisual objectives on a global scale.
What trends are you seeing in the industry?
Previously, videoconferencing was seen as a costly, high-end application used predominantly in select industries. But over recent years, for several reasons, there has been a major uptake in video conferencing. Data services are faster, more reliable and cheaper. Also, the quality has improved vastly, thanks mainly to HD, which brings more lifelike experiences. These changes have greatly driven demand, which in turn pushes technology advancements.
In addition, the affordability of large-size displays, be it LED walls, large LCD/plasma screens etc, has resulted in these technologies being used for marketing and advertising where traditional poster type materials might previously have been used. Japan and Hong Kong, in particular, have always been very visual markets with lots of lights and bands flashed around the streets, but now we see AV technologies supplementing that, be it large outdoor video displays on buildings, in retail areas, or within offices. Most corporate offices now have large video displays in the lobby, and retail outlets have video displays in the windows or splashed around the stores.
Video has also become more mobile. It is not restricted to specific meeting rooms, and people can join videoconferences from their desks, their homes, or their hotel rooms. It will always depend on the type of meeting, but video usage is now spreading across different platforms. This is further driving usage, and making video communication a major part of day-to-day lives.
What new products are you working on?
We work with partners to provide value-added solutions to our existing services. With a partner, we recently created a new packaged product that makes it simple for small and mid-size companies to adopt videoconferencing. To help bring HD videoconferencing to them, we have created a fully managed service with all-you-can-eat video calling with a predictable, fixed monthly cost and no hidden charges. We see a big need for this type of offering. A lot of companies do not want to outlay a large sum of money on infrastructure that is not properly supported.
One of our other partners has a very interesting product – a software and hardware based room-booking system, which allows you to book a room in any location from the web or through Outlook. An LED screen is placed outside the room (there are also small screens that sit on hot desks) and when you make a booking, the screen is green if it is not booked, red if it is, and amber if someone is going in. The really great thing about this application is the ‘no show’ feature that frees up the meeting room or desk if no one confirms the booking within a certain time period. This enables a company to save huge amounts of money because they can control how rooms are being used, and increase the efficiency of room usage. Many companies in Japan could certainly make good use of this system.
What’s happening in the field of digital signage?
Vega has carried out a lot of digital signage projects in Hong Kong and we are now starting to build on these in Japan. It’s a huge market, especially in the retail sector.
Is educating clients a big part of the job?
Yes, because what we are about is helping people communicate more effectively and enabling businesses to work more efficiently. A lot of end users don’t understand how to use the systems they have purchased. Making a video call should be as easy as picking up the phone, which is what we are enabling. We continue to work on industry-specific applications developed to focus on the communication needs of different industries.
So your own staff needs to be up-to-date on the latest technology, too.
Educating our staff and making sure they are on top of emerging technologies is very important. We have all our staff (not just the engineers) attend industry specific courses and training; we also have internal training that focuses on sharing knowledge and past experiences. Staff are encouraged to study and educate themselves whenever possible.
We really focus on long-term relationships with customers, listening to what they say, being professional, attentive and responsive at all times. We provide an environment that enables self-development for staff, and that also encourages them to be more creative and innovative.
How many in your team?
We have 10 staff here, including speakers of Chinese, Japanese and English. It is a niche market and it can be hard to find skilled personnel. Most likely we’ll do more hiring this year. But I must say I am very lucky to have a great team of people working at Vega. Although demanding, it is a relaxed work environment and our staff in Tokyo work closely as a team. An organization is people serving people, so it is important to treat the people who work for you well because if you don’t there will be a flow-on effect.
What is a typical day for you?
I usually get here just before 9 a.m. I am out meeting clients a fair bit. I don’t like to micromanage. I believe in letting responsible people get on with their job and providing direction when needed. I tend to get involved when we are doing a tender to ensure we have got the right strategy in terms of a pricing model and pitch.
How do you like to relax when you are not working?
Although the job is extremely busy and requires long hours, I do exercise when I can and play squash regularly. I also love playing music (guitar and mandolin), and do the occasional gig in an amateur rock band called Alimo. I also compose music when I can.
I would like to say I have a good work/life balance, but that isn’t always the case.