From Tokyo to Texas via UWM

It all started with a test that his dad made him take.

That’s how Ryota (Ricky) Sakamoto’s (’99) journey from Japan to Wisconsin to Illinois to Japan to Russia to Japan to Texas began.  With one test.

In the early ‘90s, Sakamoto’s father was employed by SC Johnson Wax in Japan, which offered a scholarship to one employee’s child each year for the opportunity to be a high school exchange student in Racine and live with a host family from the SC Johnson home office.

“I didn’t want to take the test, but he said ‘it’s just a test’ so I finally agreed,” says Sakamoto. He got the scholarship.

One year turned to two, and then he stayed for college. He says he followed his father’s “strong influence” to study business, majoring in marketing and production/operations management.

“I loved UWM and the business school and I love Wisconsin. I consider it my second home,” he shares. He still keeps in touch with many of his old friends, including the many Japanese friends he made on campus, most of whom are back in Japan and working at global companies including IBM, Accenture, PwC, and Microsoft, as well as a good friend who owns a major car dealership.  “We had a great education at UWM.”

Following graduation, Sakamoto built a career in the steel industry, working in project management, sales, and marketing for Mitsubishi International Steel and Metal One and its subsidiaries. His work has taken him around the globe, including two years on a pipeline project in Russia and five years based in Japan while travelling extensively throughout Asia and Europe.

Today, he is a vice president at J.D. Rush Corporation in Houston, a major distributor of OCTG (Oil Country Tubular Goods), the 40-foot pipe segments that make up oil drilling systems that can extend up to 25,000 feet long. The company supplies to major oil and gas companies, as well as independents.

Ironically, Japan continues to play a role in his job. Following the 2011 nuclear reactor accident in Fukushima, many Japanese companies established themselves in Texas in order to secure oil and gas for the Japanese energy industry. Those independent oil companies have become a significant portion of J.D. Rush’s customer base, and Sakamoto is strongly targeting them in addition to established local customers around Houston.

2020 has been a challenging year for the oil industry, Sakamoto says, with oil prices careening from close to $100 per barrel to negative $37, and currently hovering around $40. With increasing environmental pressures that the industry also faces, Sakamoto sees that changes are afoot. Customers are changing their processes and preparing for a more significant shift with the incoming Biden administration.

“All you need to prove that the industry is facing change is the fact that electric car maker Tesla is building its new Gigafactory in Texas. Texas! Oil country!” he says.