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COLUMN ONE : 'Japaning' of Europe at Full Tilt : Companies rush for a foothold before the 1992 integration of the European Community. Alsace is a case in point.

August 02, 1990|KARL SCHOENBERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Alsace, however, outright Japan-bashing has not been conspicuous--yet. Perhaps the strongest sign of tension so far was when the regional newspaper L'Alsace reported earlier this year that "the Japanese" had bought the Haut-Landsberg castle, a government-protected historic landmark. The article was published on April Fool's Day, and most readers are assumed to have gotten the joke.

Lest any suspicions linger, though, Sony has faithfully carried out its policy of "localizing" operations at the Ribeauville plant, its third manufacturing facility in France and now its second-largest in Europe after a television factory in Wales. The plant manager here is a Frenchman--hired away from Motorola--and he vaguely outranks the sole Japanese executive at the site.

"We are not invaders," said Yasuya Takaura, the so-called No. 2 man who also carries the title of "senior general manager in charge of audio-video manufacturing" for Sony Europa GmbH, the parent company of Sony France SA. "This is a French factory, a European factory. That is our policy."

For Takaura, who supervised the team of technicians that invented the Sony Walkman in the late 1970s, the assignment in Ribeauville is a bittersweet one. Like the hero of the "Blue Skies" television drama, he is separated--but amicably--from his wife, who remains in Japan with his children.

Still, he confesses to enjoying the good life here. In a corner of his office sits a hefty set of golf clubs, which he lugs along on business trips to Switzerland and Germany. The portly engineer also has acquired a taste for Alsatian cuisine.

"My middle name is foie gras, " he said.

Claude Tournet, Sony France SA's plant manager, said he is struck with deja vu whenever he hears complaints about Japan's threat to French industry.

Tournet recalled that he was just out of college and job hunting 21 years ago when "The American Challenge," by French journalist Jean Jacques Servan-Schreiber, became a best seller. The controversial book warned of a U.S. "assault on Europe" and reasoned that America's competitive advantage was in its system of business management, not in superior technology. Tournet started his career with an American multinational.

Now he does things the Japanese way, right down to the gasoline station-style uniform jacket he wears over his executive dress shirt and tie. He takes great pride in the factory's quality performance, one of those American management concepts the Japanese perfected. His plant currently stamps out CD players at a rate of more than 1.1 million units a year, and it is expanding. By the end of 1990 Sony will have made a cumulative investment of $90 million in Ribeauville and have 1,200 workers on Tournet's payroll.

Sales are roughly doubling annually, Tournet noted, while pointing to a map of greater Europe with Alsace at its exact center.

"We are right on the spot, at the heart, especially now with the opening of Eastern Europe," Tournet said. "We have 200 million potential customers within a 500-kilometer (310-mile) radius, and our aim is to be as close as possible to them so we know what their needs are."

Sony's venture in Alsace--called a "greenfield" investment in the jargon because the company acquired a patch of ground and built from scratch instead of buying an up-and-running concern--represents a recent trend that was oddly allegorized in the "Blue Skies of Alsace" story.

More and more companies are choosing to venture off into uncharted territory in Europe, as opposed to clustering in well-established Japanese enclaves. Dusseldorf, from whence the fictional bankrupt trader came, is one such enclave, as are London and Wales.

But it should be noted that the "Blue Skies" scriptwriter's choice of Niedermorschwihr as a site for the crash into the haystack was no accident. That was engineered by the same man who brought Sony to Ribeauville: Andre Klein, director of the Alsace Development Agency, who might be described as the impresario of most Alsace-Japan connections.

Klein opened a branch office in Tokyo in 1982--an aggressive move that provoked the ire of Datar, the central government's commercial service, because Alsace was not classified as underdeveloped or having high unemployment.

There were no tax incentives to dole out. All Alsace had to offer was a diligent work force, the "Germans among the French." (Alsace and neighboring Lorraine have been hotly contested in modern wars and forced to switch sovereignty several times, leading to another Alsatian virtue: adaptability.)

"We have a traditional relationship to the Germans and the Swiss--it shows in work well done, our social consensus and reliability," Klein said. "Our wages are also 20% to 25% lower than in Germany."

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