Interview with James Watanabe, vice president of Watanabe Enterprises

This article is part of a series featuring business executives who choose to live and work in Utah. If you know of an executive we should interview, please contact us.

When it comes to government contracting services, James Watanabe knows his way around a federal contract.

He spent his early career working with start-up business ventures helping them grow into successful operations. He did this by developing corporate business strategies, driving product development and building strategic partnerships, among a host of other responsibilities.

As CEO of Watanabe Enterprises, he oversees the company’s government contracting efforts. Among its numerous accolades, the company was awarded its first government contract within 30 days of formally being able to bid on federal government work. Since then, the company has won key multiple multi-year services contracts with the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services and others. 

As a certified Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business, Watanabe Enterprises cares deeply about their ability to serve veteran communities. It also feels strongly about serving indigenous communities and pursuing contracts that provide services to overlooked and marginalized groups.

How did you get started in the industry?
Watanabe Enterprises started out providing by government contracting services to Locum Tenens, a healthcare staffing company. The work was very challenging but also extremely rewarding because there is a tremendous need for healthcare. 

In our start-up phase, we formulated a strategic mentoring relationship with Vista Staffing Solutions to help us expand our initial service offerings and navigate some of the early-stage hurdles. The relationship has yielded positive outcomes, and we continue to foster that relationship.

What recent professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m proud we are debt-free. We have a solid foundation of work that we will be able to build upon for many years to come. Watanabe Enterprises has also surpassed a number of our aggressive growth goals.

What drew you to Utah?
Utah is an attractive place for many reasons. The biggest draw for us is the sense of community that exists in Utah. With young children, this is something especially important to my wife and I. It doesn’t hurt that Utah has amazing scenery.

What do you like most about living in Utah?
We are close to our family. I also love that no matter where you are, you’re within easy driving distance of some of the most incredible landscapes in the United States. From our beautiful canyons in the Salt Lake Valley to the National Parks down South, our family loves to explore the natural beauty Utah has to offer.

What do you like most about doing business in Utah?
There is a strong entrepreneurial spirit in Utah. The Utah chapter of the Small Business Administration, the Procurement and Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), the Women’s Business Center and Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) all played influential roles in the development of our work within the federal government space. We will be forever grateful for those resources.

What advice do you have for individuals considering starting a business, or relocating their business, to Utah? 
First and foremost, take advantage of the resources available through the state and the federal government. The Procurement and Technical Assistance Center and other entities provide invaluable services to small businesses within the state.

It’s important to collaborate. While companies certainly have to compete for work, there are opportunities for strategic collaboration with like-minded groups. We have won larger and more complex contracts by collaborating than we would have been able to win by going it alone.

What words of wisdom do you have for small businesses when times get tough?
When pursuing something worthwhile, it’s never going to be as easy as you think, and it’s almost always going to take longer than you’d like. Keep that in mind and just keep pushing. The difficult situations we encountered have almost always been the best learning experiences. Stay true to your core values, work hard, and in the long run, you’ll be able to foster relationships that will be both meaningful and profitable to your group.

What is your business philosophy?
I believe in being honest, working hard, and collaborating with others to create long-term value and mutually beneficial relationships.

Tell me a fun fact about yourself.
I am a musician and recording artist and play Hawaiian slack key guitar whenever I can. I am also an active member of the Hawaiian and Samoan communities and work to perpetuate cultural practices within our communities here in Utah. Participating in these endeavors helps to keep me sane and connected.

James Watanabe is the vice president of Watanabe Enterprises and assists businesses in winning federal government contracts.
Connect with him on LinkedIn.