Indian CEO delivers Japanese rice crackers to the world

Japan's rice cracker industry has been facing hard times, recently grappling with sluggish consumer demand for the traditional snack. But one company is looking to buck the trend with some fresh thinking and an international vision.

From India to Niigata

Lekh Raj Juneja is not your average rice cracker company CEO. Born in India, he came to Japan to study fermentation science and ended up leading a Japanese pharmaceutical firm.

Last year he was tapped to run Kameda Seika, the industry-leading senbei (rice cracker) manufacturer based in the rice-growing heartland of Niigata Prefecture.

Though Juneja has been in Japan for almost 40 years, he brings a global perspective and ambition to a venerable snack firm that has been struggling to win new domestic customers.

"I want to deliver traditional Japanese rice crackers from Niigata Prefecture to eight billion people around the world," he says.

New corporate culture

International success, for Juneja, requires an international mindset, which he is working hard to foster at Kameda Seika.

"Learning from seniors is important," he says. "But I don't want my employees to end up waiting for instructions. They have learned so many things at universities and other places. If they don't think and act, nothing will get done. We need to shorten the distance between us as much as possible and communicate more."

The new CEO can often be found in the cafeteria, taking his meals with his employees. In the cafeteria and even in meetings, he often says "Please don't think of me as your CEO, just as your friend."

Lekh Raj Juneja has lunch with his employees, chatting at the company cafeteria.

He says he believes global success will come when they integrate the best of Indian and Japanese working styles: "Indians are very aggressive when it comes to creating strategies and moving forward, but Japanese people are great at completing things properly. We should be aggressive in creating a system and going out into the world."

Lekh Raj Juneja leads a meeting with his colleagues.

Aiming overseas

Juneja has signed deals to export some of the company's biggest domestic hits, including a lactic acid bacteria derived from rice that can be added to food to promote gut health and glossier skin, among other benefits.

Kameda Seika sells the world's first commercialized "rice-derived lactic acid bacteria."

But he also has his eye on global trends. The firm has launched a new line of products with vegan labeling to capitalize on the growing interest in plant-based foods and meat substitutes, and to reach those with allergies or religion-based dietary restrictions.

"The number of young vegans is increasing tremendously," he says. "So this area of business will definitely grow in the future."

Kameda Seika is using its rice expertise to create new products for the plant-based food sector.

In July 2023, the company established a new department dedicated to developing products with global appeal. It is staffed entirely by people who have been previously stationed overseas and is aiming to have new products in foreign markets within three years.

Kameda Seika launched a new department to develop the global appeal of rice products.

"People still don't understand the power of rice. We don't just eat rice. We create various textures, shapes, and forms, and these become products that are unique to Japan," said Juneja.

Juneja says he wants international sales to account for 50 percent of the company's revenue by 2030.

His vision is already moving them in the right direction. Over the past 12 months, overseas sales have leapt 150 percent compared with the year before.

Lekh Raj Juneja enjoying one of his company's rice crackers.
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