Georgia kaolin, forestry and other natural resources along with real estate have been actively sought by overseas firms over the years. Yet Japanese companies were the ones that really put the state of Georgia in the running as a recipient of foreign direct investment, especially during the 1980s when the word got out that the state was very definitely open for business.
Economic development generally relies on the expertise of trained specialists who can persuasively present positive site selection prospects to investors who are being courted by a host of competitors.
Behind the many reasons for the interest by the Japanese in Georgia was a team of two brothers, Day and George Lancaster, who were the descendants of Presbyterian missionaries, spoke fluent Japanese and had an unusual command of Japanese cultural practices.
Day Lancaster, currently senior vice president of Japan corporate services at NAI Brannen Goddard, the privately held commercial real estate firm, has a client list that includes a large number of Japanese corporate clients ranging from the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi to Yamato Transportation and YKK (USA) America Inc., the zipper and building materials company.
His ties to Japan go way back with their origins actually first extending to China in the 19th century where his great grandfather, R.V. Lancaster, served as a Presbyterian missionary a commitment that his grandfather, Lewis H. Lancaster Sr., also took on and which even his father, Lew Lancaster, embraced.
In 1952, Lew Lancaster, who died at age 90 last month, and his late wife, Virginia, were appointed as part of the first group to become cooperating missionaries with the United Church of Christ in Japan. For 20 years, they served as missionaries first in Tokushima and then in Takamatsu, both on the island of Shikoku.
“Dad already had Asian and Japanese connections,” Day Lancaster told Global Atlanta. “He had gone to China when he was 12 years old and spent the hot summer months for summer vacation at a church retreat on the banks of a beautiful lake in north central Japan.”
Following World War II, the U.S. government let it be known that there was an opportunity for Americans to serve as missionaries in Japan and Mr. and Mrs. Lancaster first moved to Kobe on the southern side of the island of Honshu.
They studied Japanese at a language school in Kobe and it was there that Day was born. “Right after I was born we moved to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands,” Day Lancaster said.
He was home schooled until returning to the U.S. when the five year abroad cycle to which the missionaries adhered had ended and the family moved to Richmond, Va., where Mr. Lancaster was assigned by the church and Day experience his first full year of formal U.S. schooling.
At that point he spoke only a rough form of Japanese that he had picked up playing with Japanese children. “Just a natural thing,” he said. “I couldn’t read or write Japanese. By playing with kids in the yard and what I picked up on TV, I did speak heavy accented, uneducated Japanese. Just think of a Japanese boy living in Hahira (Ga.), and playing in the yard after school, picking up some English from TV. It also would be heavily accented.”
After a year in the U.S., the family moved back to Shikoku and he resumed his schooling at a Canadian boarding in school in Kobe where he received some formal Japanese lessons.
Meanwhile, the Lancaster family grew by one with the birth of George, the last of five siblings, who was placed in a Japanese elementary school where he rapidly picked up Japanese. At the close of the next five year cycle, the whole family moved once again, this time to Decatur, Ga., for a one year furlough.
This time, however, Lew Lancaster never went back to Japan. Instead he accepted a job in the office of the Presbyterian headquarters in Atlanta and later in Louisville, Ky.
The Japanese connection could have stopped right there. But Day Lancaster decided to attend Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., because it fulfilled the two requirements he was looking for: it was small, and it offered a degree in Japanese Studies.
Earlham began as a Quaker institution in 1847 and today pridefully promotes what its president calls a “full court press on internationalization” including an emphasis on study abroad as well as global awareness threaded throughout its curriculums. Graduates have to demonstrate command of a second language.
Both Day and George Lancaster attended Earldom and enrolled in its advanced Japanese courses. Day Lancaster said that it was at Earldom that he received the rigorous training that took his rudimentary level of Japanese to a business relevant level.
Following his graduation from college, Day went to work as an interpreter at a manufacturing plant making Quasar brand TVs next to O’Hare Airport in Chicago that eventually was bought by the Matsushita Electronics Co. from Motorola. He was assigned to a Japanese manager, who didn’t speak any English, and was asked to serve as the interpreter during a visit to the plant by Konosuke Matushita, who founded the company and was known by many Japanese as “the god of management.”
During the visit, Day stood next to Mr. Matsushita while his manager “was shaking in his boots,” and recalled that the gymnasium at his Kobe boarding school he had attended was named after him. Thanking Mr. Matsushita for this generous contribution to the school and reviewing his experience, he expected a probing, philosophical question in response. But much to his surprise. the query he received was merely, “How old are you?” — end of conversation.
After three years in Chicago, Day was ready to escape the cold weather and landed a job as a sales manager with a small Japanese company that made printed circuit boards in Peachtree City. He recalled that the company was poorly managed and he didn’t much like working there.
“One day he heard the rotary propellers of a helicopter overhead. “It landed nearby and this guy comes in the dirty, smelly plant with a flight jacket and aviator glasses.”
That “guy” was Robert Spence who was making videos of Japanese companies in Georgia as a recruiting tool on behalf of the Georgia Department of Industry and Trade, which eventually would evolve into today’s Georgia Department of Economic Development. “I could do that job,” Day Lancaster thought to himself and as soon as he learned that Mr. Spence was relocated to Tokyo, he applied to fill the vacant position and was hired.
The year was 1980 “and everyone was taking notice of incoming Japanese investment,” he said. He doesn’t recall exactly whether it was YKK in Macon or Murata Manufacturing Co. Ltd. in Rockmart, which can claim to be the first arrival in the early 1970s. In either case, it was a breakthrough for the state and the culmination of a proactive outreach that can be traced back to the administration of former Gov. Carl Sanders and then gained steam under governors Jimmy Carter and George Busbee. By 1980 as Day recalls it was “a fun time to be involved.”
As the investments poured in, however, not everyone of them was a winner for Georgia. Day recalled working tirelessly on the state’s efforts to attract Nissan North America Inc. The company’s decision to build its plant in Smyrna, Tenn., was “a heartbreak,” he said, and to this day he refuses to drive a Nissan vehicle.
Meanwhile, his fluency in Japanese turned out to be extremely useful with dinners at the governor’s mansion to entertain executives from Japan’s leading companies as well as public presentations when Georgia competed with other states in the Southeast for the investment.
By 1982, Mr. Spence moved on from the state’s office in Tokyo and Day was sent to Japan to replace him and represent Georgia’s Asia initiatives. In a smooth transitional move, he recruited his brother George, who had just graduated from Earlham with a degree in Japanese Studies and who was equally fluent in Japanese, to assume his current position.
“It was a great partnership,” he recalled. “I was in Japan and he was the perfect partner on the Atlanta side. We worked on various deals together and often passed the baton from one to the other.”
George recollected for Global Atlanta how far removed Georgians were from any sort of understanding of Japan or its culture when he first returned in 1972 aged 12 and entered Renfroe Middle School and later Decatur High School.
“I remember in 1972 Japan didn’t register at all on the radar of any of the students,” he said. “Sushi and sashimi were pretty much non-existent across Atlanta and when I told people about my love for the cuisine, the response was ‘Gross!’”
By the early 1980s a sea change had occurred and the appreciation for Japanese food and culture was far more pronounced, he said, recalling the many Japanese companies that had set up their operations in Georgia, which also attracted a dozen Japanese banks who followed their clients to help them realize their aspirations for profiting in the still developing Southeastern markets.
Among them he cited are Hoshizaki Electric in Peachtree City; Mitsubishi Electric in Braselton; YKK in Macon; Kubota Manufacturing of America in Gainesville; Panasonic in Peachtree City; Ricoh in Lawrenceville; Yokogawa in Newnan; TDK Components in Peachtree City; Hitachi Koki in Braselton;
Kawasaki Heavy Machinery in Newnan; Makita in Buford; Ninnai in Peachtree City; Toppan in McDonough and Griffin; Yamaha Motor in Newnan; NEC in Alpharetta; Mixuno in Norcross, Bridgestone in Griffin and TOTO in Morrow.
In a blog that he posted recently, George looked back at some of his experiences as a novice economic developer in his early 20s at a time when Georgia was aggressively pursuing Japanese investments.
The great divide between the Atlanta metropolitan region and the rest of the state provided a cultural as well as an economic challenge for attracting firms to locations distant from Atlanta.
In the blog he describes a hilarious visit on behalf of one of the state’s Japan related economic initiatives to Perry, a small city about 100 miles south of Atlanta, where he was entered into a Turkey Shoot without knowing in advance it entailed. To find out what actually happened click here and read his essay “Talking Turkey.”
Later in the 1980s, he tried his hand at economic development for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts only to find his welcome there rather frosty. “I found the reception for my efforts quite cold,” he said. “This is because the local population saw any Japanese coming in as competition with or replacing existing American manufacturers.”
That reception was in stark contrast to Georgia’s where Japanese companies weren’t seen as competing with similar American manufacturers. They were viewed as net job creators and thus were entirely embraced,” he added. “The sense of openness was like night and day between Massachusetts and Georgia.”
He also contrasted the experiences of Peachtree City, which lies 30 some miles south of Atlanta and was incorporated in 1959, and Newnan, also about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta, but incorporated in 1828. “The reason Peachtree City did so well is that the city itself was a corporation and had no history. They (the city representatives) would come to the table as a corporate entity devoid of bias.”
In contrast, he said, “Its neighbor Newnan took forever to see the light. I brought numerous Japanese companies there but they were not made welcome. It was only after seeing the success of Peachtree City did they finally lose their bias against outsiders and lo and behold they snared Yamaha Motor, Kaowasaki Heavy Machinery and Yokogawa.”
“Success didn’t depend on tax incentives and other giveaways,” he added. “Good infrastructure, hardworking people, local government support — these were the keys.”
Despite his success, George Lancaster didn’t stick to economic development. He eventually joined the wholesale trading center, the Americas Mart Atlanta, and later Portman Leasing Ltd. He now lives in Sydney Australia where he is developing a digital replacement for wholesalers starting with the gift and homewares industry.
Meanwhile brother Day remains in Atlanta securing office and industrial space for corporate clients with a special expertise in leasing, buying or selling real estate throughout the U.S.
While real estate remains a constant source of activity, he has witnessed the ebb and flow of Japanese investment throughout the state.
A company like Panasonic started making telephones but now is manufacturing car electronics. Manufacturers of videotape and floppy discs have found it more difficult to make the transitions.
Nevertheless, Japan-Georgia relations remain strong despite the ups and downs of the global and national economies and the state is regarded as the center of Japanese industry in the U.S. Southeast.
According to the Japanese Consulate General, which was established in 1974 and based in Atlanta, Japanese-affiliated companies over the years have invested $10.4 billion in Georgia, where 547 said companies currently operate.
The brothers Lancaster certainly don’t take all or even a healthy portion of the credit for Japan’s interest in Georgia. But they can’t help but acknowledge that the experiences of their missionary forebears prepared them for the challenges and rewards of the 20th and 21st centuries.
George also sends his regards to old friends and says that he would be delighted to hear from them to share old memories.