Kosuke Okimori, is the Executive Investment Director of Kewpie Pension Fund, which benefits current and former employees of Kewpie Corp., a leading manufacturer of food products. Kewpie’s defined benefit fund serves about 8,000 employees and retirees, and has AUM of approximately JPY 65.5 billion as of May 2020, with an expected return of 3%. Its policy asset mix consists of bonds (domestic and foreign), equities (domestic and foreign), long-term growth assets, insurance-linked securities, insurance general account, and short-term assets. The fund maintains a relatively high ratio of alternative assets at 20%, which was increased from 4% in 2014.
Since its establishment, just over 100 years ago, Kewpie Corporation has believed that good products begin with good ingredients. Okimori believes a similar approach is also the starting place for managing a pension fund, as he shares in this interview.
“The management of our pension fund begins with good investments and good asset management. The right asset manager is more important than the right product. It is much easier to change products than to change managers, after all.”
“I have certain expectations of our asset managers: invest in new products, but be willing to shed existing ones; assess total returns by viewing the portfolio holistically, rather than simply assessing individual products – and avoid bias toward your own products.”
“Initially, our fund’s investment principles were boilerplate, written by a trust bank. We found the language wasn’t reflective of Kewpie as a company, so we rewrote it to better reflect our own values. In addition to the above-mentioned corporate philosophy, Kewpie maintains three corporate principles, which we reformulated and made part of our fund’s general operation: 1) Act on moral principles – meaning asset managers should base their assessments on what is true and right; 2) Strive for originality and ingenuity – meaning don’t be satisfied with the status quo, and adapt a flexible management style to achieve targets; and 3) Look after the parent’s wellbeing – meaning the fund should repay employees and beneficiaries who have contributed to the Kewpie group. Articulating these principles helps Kewpie’s employees understand what our fund is about. It means more than simply saying, ‘Trust our fund management.’”
“We strive to bring practice in line with our corporate philosophy everywhere in our operations. This year, we’ve teamed with a fintech company to develop an analytical tool that will make accounting ledgers and reporting more efficient by dropping all data from asset managers into a single batch. Improving our booking system and asset management platform has been an issue for some time – currently it is difficult to instantly obtain monthly closings and annual returns. The classification of asset allocation varies depending on where it is submitted into the platform. Hopefully, our improvements to these systems will not only help my successors, but other pension funds and asset owners as well.”
“Our immediate goals also include formalizing our ESG investment policies and SDG [sustainable development goals] in writing, extending them to all investments, not just equities. Again, the wording will reflect Kewpie’s long history of environmental concern and engagement.”
“All of these makeovers were initiated during the first three or so years of my tenure, to untangle things I felt were inefficient or difficult to understand. At the core of each reform was the desire to gain the understanding and trust of employees and beneficiaries. After nearly 10 years as a director of Kewpie’s pension fund, I am beginning to look toward passing the reins to the next generation.”
“I was involved in agricultural imports ever since I joined Kewpie, and then at age 40, I was suddenly transferred to accounting, which I had to learn by studying bookkeeping texts. In 2012, I was appointed an investment director of the corporate pension fund. Once again, I started from scratch – as in, ‘What does it mean to manage a fund?’ I started by examining the portfolio. Common sense might have dictated I tell Kewpie HR they had made a huge mistake, yet all my seemingly irrelevant experience ended up informing the job I do now.”
“For example, the knowledge of weather I acquired from dealing with agricultural products helps me understand insurance investments. My belief that good products derive from good ingredients came from my experience with crop trading. I learned there that a good product cannot result unless you are committed to it at every stage – from seeds to farming land, harvest, to processing, to delivery and retail. The same idea applies to being an asset manager. Once you start cutting corners or ignoring problems, you will never achieve a satisfactory return.”
“It’s a common saying in the food industry that ‘you can judge a company by its toilets.’ In practice, I could determine the quality of a crop by noting the condition of the farmland – for example, whether there were puddles or adequate sunlight. At asset management companies, it’s harder to see such signs. Still, you can gather clues from the entrances of office divisions, postings on office walls, or how the desktops are organized.”
“Throughout my life, I have found myself forced to adapt to new surroundings. As a child, I attended primary school from age 6 to 11 in Hamburg, which was then part of West Germany. None of my classmates had ever seen a Japanese before. I returned to Japan, again outside the main, with quite a different background from the other children. This experience made me keen to understand other people’s viewpoints. Now, when I talk with asset managers about investments abroad, for example, I focus on how they view the countries they invest in. I can then picture what they are good at, what they tend to emphasize, and how knowledgeable and enthusiastic they are. As always, I try to assemble the best ingredients to get the best management results for our fund.”