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Raising a quiet giant

Omega keeps low profile in big media investments

TOKYO — The cramped headquarters in Tokyo’s fashionable Shibuya district don’t betray a rising investment force in Japanese and, recently, Korean film production and distribution.

But then it’s Omega Project’s strategy to keep a low profile. “We are not interested in imposing our management ideas on foreign partners, as long as we trust them and know that they do a good job”, says president and CEO Toyoyuki Yokohama.

The 45-year-old former insurance executive honed his investment skills as fund manager for one of Japan’s large insurance companies. Voted in as Omega’s president in June 1998, Yokohama moved fast to give the former distributor of a special audio system (the company formerly known as Body Sonic) a new set of ventures: media content, mobile telephony and Internet.

The result: an intricate and still growing web of subsidiary companies in Japan, Korea, the U.S., Germany and Italy, of which about 70% are directly involved in media-related activities, such as film production, distribution and content creation, including Japanese animation distrib D-World.

The Omega subsidiary Basara Entertainment functions as holding company for all its media companies, such as Omega Pictures and Omega Pictures Korea.

Omega’s web of relationships is complicated. Take the feature “Go,” from Toei Studios. The coming-of-age tale — Japan’s entry for the foreign-language Oscar –was co-financed by Starmax, a Korean production and distribution company. Starmax holds majority shares in Korean video rental chain Cine Town and broadband media delivery company Rentrak Korea and operates music content enterprise Starmax Media. It also distributed “Go” in Korea. And Basara Entertainment owns 62% of Starmax.

Omega Project’s stealth investment strategy is still rare among Japanese corporations, especially in the media field.

“A lot of companies here think that globalization means producing overseas under one’s own brand name and one’s own rules. This is not true,” explains Yokohama. “By helping companies to gather critical mass in a shorter time, they can list on local stock markets very quickly” — which helps Omega Project recoup its investment.

But despite its low profile, Omega Project takes great care of and remains closely involved in the development of the companies in which it owns shares.

It is not only interested in a quick return. “Our aim is to create a really global company with many names and very local characteristics,” Yokohama says.

The next big item on Yokohama’s schedule: China. “We want to be involved, there are so many opportunities.”

For now, Omega’s investigating possibilities, such as Shanghai’s Animation Studio, and financing a splashy Chinese Film Festival to be held in Tokyo in September.

“We can afford to improve trust and get to know each other slowly,” he explains.

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