Kohei Umeno

CaetanoBus - Fabricação De Carroçarias S.A
Board of Directors
Chief Liaison Officer & Assistant to CEO

Electric vehicles hold out the promise of a cleaner, greener society. As a director of Portuguese electric bus manufacturer CaetanoBus, Kohei Umeno is setting the agenda for the urban transport of the future.

Electrification is now

Electrification is now

Mitsui invested in CaetanoBus, a Portuguese bus manufacturer, in December 2017. I was seconded to the company in April 2018 and sit on the board of directors. I handle sales and business development, with a particular focus on marketing and partnership-building for the electric bus side of the business. I was involved in the investment process and actually relocated to Portugal for four months to perform due diligence.

From the initial idea to the investment going through took a year. I felt that EVs could be the starting point for all sorts of new businesses for Mitsui. I was thrilled when the investment went through. It was a new challenge for me. I was excited at the thought of how I could help the company grow and absolutely determined to deliver results.

As a company, Caetano has evolved: it’s gone from just making bodies for conventional internal-combustion-engine buses to developing EV powertrains for buses. Changes in society are providing a strong tailwind. In many of Europe’s big cities, for example, bus electrification is the official policy. The market for electric buses is growing fast. The company’s right at the stage when growth can really take off.

Red buses go green

What have been my toughest experience and my happiest experience at Caetano? Funnily enough, my answer to both questions is the same: winning the order to supply zero-emission electric buses to one of the transport operators in London.

London is a highly competitive market and a key battleground for the world’s bus manufacturers, with the Chinese being particularly aggressive. Anyway, we successfully fended off our rivals and secured an order in July 2019. Starting in 2020, there will be thirty-four Caetano electric buses running on two routes in London.

Everyone knows London’s famous red buses. Getting the chance to supply these iconic vehicles is a meaningful win for Caetano. Caetano is already in a strong position for electric buses in its home market, but in the rest of the world it’s only just getting started. A result like this in London is a major selling point; it should be a springboard for launching our electric buses into more global markets.

Winning the order was a challenge. We had to pull together a team with people from different companies in different countries–the battery systems manufacturer in France, the transport operator in the UK, and so on–so we could offer a total package. Unusually for a company director, I was the project manager. That was the CEO’s idea, but once I was put in charge I really took ownership of the project. Everything we were doing was new and, frankly, our first-draft proposal was a bit feeble. The price per vehicle was twice what we ended up proposing.

I visited all our partners and improved our proposal by working through all the issues in a methodical way. Internally, I was a newcomer, so it took time for me to win the trust of the team I was heading. It wasn’t easy. In the end, though, all the back and forth enabled us to put together a good proposal where all the risks had been properly thought through.

Big-picture thinking

Big-picture thinking

At Mitsui, we specialize in creating new businesses by collaborating with a range of partners. That means we need to be able to get other people interested and involved in what we’re doing. Trust is crucial. Do people buy in to your vision? Do they feel they trust you? Having good communication skills—which I think I have—is key to bringing people round.

When I was quite new to Mitsui, there was this guy I worked with. I remember something he told me: “People make up their minds about you in the first three months.” In other words, you’ve got this quite limited window of time in which to build trust and win people over. For Mitsui, where we work on a series of different projects with different partners over our careers, that was a valuable insight.

Another Mitsui thing is to focus less on short-term profits and more on the big picture. As a company, we take our mission and our vision seriously. I try to keep that sort of big-picture thinking at the front of my mind. In fact, it was something I discussed with my colleagues and partners when we were working on the London electric bus proposal. “This is our chance to build Caetano into a Portuguese national champion.” “This is our chance to help make the world a cleaner place by encouraging the adoption of electric buses.” “This is a project we can tell our kids about with pride 10 or 20 years from now.” The ability to see and communicate the big picture is very motivating.

Driving the green revolution

What are my long-term goals? Over the next couple of decades, I want Caetano to become a Portuguese company with a global presence. We’re planning a push into Asia. Electric buses in Europe is just a starting point. I want Caetano and Mitsui to play a role in making society greener by combining mobility, infrastructure, energy management and smart city technology. Thanks to its network, Mitsui is able to craft these sorts of broad-based total solutions.

Working in the LNG business made me acutely aware of Japan’s dependence on imported energy. Renewable energy is really taking off right now and Japan needs to figure out effective ways to generate and store it. That means thinking about new forms of infrastructure and drawing on the full range of Mitsui’s strengths. If we do that, we can help set Japan on a new path, boost the country’s global presence and make the world a better place.

This may all sound a bit highfalutin, but, as I said before, this sort of big-picture thinking is what motivates me.

Posted in October 2019