“You can’t run the marathon if you don’t learn how to walk”

Step by step

ProWorks Group helps firms clear hurdles to market entry and growth in Japan

 


MAY 2022 Business Spotlight/ Text by Alexandra Ziminski / Photos by Benjamin Parks


Founded in Japan in 2007, and now with an office in the US, ProWorks Group is a business support firm with a team of more than 40 bilingual specialists in Japan. The firm has extensive experience in areas such as market entry, visa support, accounting & tax, HR & payroll, business consulting, and IT & infrastructure.

Founded in Japan in 2007, and now with an office in the US, ProWorks Group is a business support firm with a team of more than 40 bilingual specialists in Japan. The firm has extensive experience in areas such as market entry, visa support, accounting & tax, HR & payroll, business consulting, and IT & infrastructure.

“You can’t run the marathon if you don’t learn how to walk,” says Marek Lehocky, CEO and founder. “We help firms by partnering with them and supporting them, especially through the initial steps, because it’s absolutely critical for their success that they understand the Japanese business environment and how the market works.

“We’re in it together,” he adds. “In the long run, if our clients fall, we fall as well.”

THE RIGHT TRAINING
In addition to his own first-hand experience starting ProWorks in Japan, Lehocky successfully helped a number of companies grow in his home country of Slovakia. For example, in the late 1990s, a time of high nationwide unemployment, he became the vice president of a Japanese joint-venture factory, and it developed fast under his leadership. He oversaw the opening of new sites and hired many employees, raising the total to around 6,500 people.

After a stint in the US, Lehocky came to Japan in 2004 to finish his MBA at Keio Business School. He then secured a position at a market entry firm. Under his leadership, the company grew its client base and went from 15 employees to more than 100 in two and a half years.

Despite Japan being known as a country of excellent service, Lehocky saw that the market entry firm’s partners, such as lawyers and tax accountants, were not living up to that reputation.

“Foreign companies were coming, they were interested, there were opportunities, but the handful of firms that were providing professional services to foreign investors in Japan were taking advantage of this,” he says. “Basically, these firms could do whatever they wanted because the foreign investors had limited options.”

This experience inspired Lehocky to start ProWorks, “a service- and process-oriented professional firm” that would bring these functions together — and give business owners a better option.

“The catalyst that gets me to do something new is often frustration,” Lehocky says. “I wanted to keep the idea behind ProWorks very simple: that we listen to what companies need, then we act as their eyes, ears, and hands in the Japanese market — even when they’re asleep.”

“we listen to what companies need, then we act as their eyes, ears, and hands in the Japanese market”

HELP OVER THE HURDLES
And there’s a lot for those hands to do. Lehocky lists a number of challenges that foreign companies need help with when establishing a business in Japan. One of these is that Japan “continues to be quite analogue”, with lots of paperwork and physical signatures required. In most cases, applications can’t be made online, so overseas firms need someone in Japan to set everything up, including visa applications, office rentals, and corporate documents for the establishment of a business here.

“Foreign companies in Japan have a smaller footprint than in many other countries because of the barriers to entry and historically high dependence on Japanese partners,” he says. “The biggest challenge for many new foreign companies in Japan is to open a bank account.”

Also, everything has to be done in Japanese, which makes each step of the process more complicated. Lehocky has made it the firm’s “number one requirement” that all staff at ProWorks be able to effectively communicate in both Japanese and English.

Helen Rivero, the firm’s financial controller, says that her bilingual team members aren’t only experts in accounting, payroll, and tax, but they manage the processes that will help get things done, and they also go the extra mile.

“We have some clients who were trying to come to Japan during the pandemic, and they asked us about everything — including the process for hiring somebody from overseas, as well as everyday life in Japan,” she says.

“We have the knowledge,” adds Chiaki Nitta, general manager. “So, we are able to provide our clients with all the information and support they need.”

Lehocky believes it’s important for ProWorks’ clients to know not only about the skills of the firm’s professionals, but also who they are as individuals.

“I want our clients to see the people behind the providers,” he says. “We are not ashamed of showing who we are, that we’re just normal people.”

Lehocky says he is an open-ocean swimmer, Nitta is a classical ballet dancer who spends “hours and hours dancing every week”, and Rivero is a native Spanish speaker from Uruguay living in Japan.

“If it wasn’t for people like Helen, like Chiaki, the company wouldn’t be here,” he says. “We have so many different angles that we bring to our clients. Our business is about being there for people.”

MORE RUNNING THE MARATHON
ProWorks continues to grow and look for ways to better serve its clients. Lehocky is currently planning to add more services, such as recruitment, to its offerings.

“That’s the next milestone for us: not just to be a professional services firm, but to become a solutions provider,” he says. “We want to be able to give our clients options that will help them to achieve their goals, instead of providing just one type of service, like traditional service providers. The solutions we offer could come directly through us, through an integrated partner within the ProWorks Group, or as a member of a bigger group.”

The firm has recently started to connect with clients outside Japan and the US. In January, it became a member of Kreston Global, an international advisory and accountancy network headquartered in the UK.

“It’s the 13th-largest professional services firm membership organisation,” says Lehocky. “We can assist clients in more than 110 countries and on six continents. There are more than 23,500 people around the world at 160 member firms. We are now able to help clients where we were not able to before — such as those expanding to South Korea or China — and work on more global projects.

“On the other side, Kreston needed a partner in Japan,” he continues. “They were looking for a member firm that understands the Japanese business environment, can communicate in English, and is familiar with the latest business systems, processes, and expectations of foreign companies. They also needed a firm with experience bringing these companies into Japan and then partnering with them over the long run — and we seem to fit the description well.”

ProWorks is committed to running the full marathon with its clients. •

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