Lifetime of Achievement: Tadashi Yanai, CEO, Fast Retailing

Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Uniql Group
Uniqlo and Fast Retailing CEO Tadashi Yanai has built his fortune on an in-demand formula of functional fashion and a digital-first strategy

Age 74, Tadashi Yanai is more ambitious than ever.

As the founder and president of Fast Retailing, the Japanese billionaire wants his company to become the world’s largest retailer.

Tadashi built – and runs the Tokyo-listed US$73.05 billion retail clothing empire, most famously known for its signature brand Uniqlo, along with six other brands Theory, Helmut Lang, J Brand and GU.

“For us at Fast Retailing, 2023 is the year for proactively implementing strategies to become the world's best global brand,” Tadashi said in a statement in May.

Having already passed Gap in fashion retail rankings, the goal now is to take on competitors Zara and H&M. This means tripling revenue to ¥10 trillion (US$67 billion) over the next decade – an ambition entirely feasible given Uniqlo’s continued global growth, and the emergence of the Asian era.

Having set itself apart from its fast-fashion competitors, with an in-demand formula of high-quality basics and no-frills affordability, Uniqlo has grown over four decades to become one of the world’s largest fashion brands.

And as consumers put ever greater emphasis on value over luxury, slow fashion over fast, the brand is expected to rise further, and quickly.  

Now operating 2,200 stores across 22 countries, including 930 outlets in China (more than in Japan) and 70 in the US and Europe, Fast Retailing plans to open 80 new stores each year in Greater China, 20 in North America, and 10 in Europe.

This comes on the back of the company’s delivery of record annual results with net profits of US$1.98 billion in the 12 months through August, an 8.4% rise on the previous all-time high, a year earlier – with annual profits for the year ahead forecast at 18% growth.

At a press conference in Tokyo last month, Tadashi said the company is on track to meet its goal of achieving 3 trillion yen (US$20bn) in fiscal 2024, 5 trillion yen (US$33bn) in revenue in the year ending in August 2028, and 10 trillion yen in the long term.

“If we can extend that pace of growth and at least triple sales over the next decade, we will be able to achieve our 10 trillion-yen target,” Tadashi said. “We will continue to set high goals and ideals as we have always done, and then to think of how to achieve those targets and set about implementing the appropriate action.”

The company’s ambitious push for global growth may well explain its most recent leadership reshuffle, which saw 74-year-old Tadashi take the CEO role at Uniqlo and former International CEO and head of North America, Daisuke Tsukagoshi, become COO.

While such a reshuffle hints at future succession planning, Tadashi – who is Japan’s richest person with an estimated US$34.3 billion – shows no signs of slowing down as he takes on dual roles, Uniqlo CEO and President of Fast Retailing.

“I believe that the founder of a company never truly retires, and my passion for business remains as strong as ever,” he said in a statement in March 2020.

Tadashi’s work ethic is not unusual in Japanese society, where the employment rate among Japanese seniors is the second highest in the world – though his continued commitment to the business despite age and wealth is no doubt cultivated by his own upbringing.

Where it all started

Growing up in a sleepy industrial town in southwestern Japan close to Hiroshima, Tadashi lived above his parents’ small menswear clothing store, where he would help his tailor father run the store. After moving away to study political science, Tadashi returned in 1972 to take on the family store.

Over the next decade, he took frequent overseas buying trips to the US and Europe – and inspired by brands such as Espirit, Benetton, Gap and Next, Tadashi spotted a gap in the Japanese retail market for a casualwear concept.

“I wanted to create stores where people could shop for clothes much like they shopped for books or records,” he said in a recent interview.

Setting up his first Uniqlo store (then called Unique Clothing Warehouse) in 1984, within seven short years, Tadashi had expanded to 29 stores, changed the store name to Uniqlo and the company name to Fast Retailing, and forged business plans to expand by 30 more stores each year.

“That’s when I went from being a merchant to becoming an entrepreneur,” he says.

The next decade saw Fast Retailing go public, with a listing on the Hiroshima Stock Exchange, open its first Uniqlo outlet in Toyko, and expand to more than 500 Uniqlo stores and 1,500 employees.

But it is only in the 20 years that the company has truly reached global retail heights – with a listing on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, strategic acquisitions of high-end fashion brands Theory and Helmut Lang, the international rollout of Uniqlo, and a digital-first strategy.

Since 2016, when Tadashi declared Uniqlo a “digital consumer retail company”, Fast Retailing has prioritised investment in e-commerce over physical retail and in tech innovation. Uniqlo apparel vending machines arrived in 2017 and the next year, unveiled an AI-powered assistant – providing customers with product recommendations and voice-enabled customer service.

As well as sales tripling roughly every 10 years, Uniqlo has vastly expanded its global network, to 2,200 stores in 22 countries, and thanks largely to Tadashi’s digital ambitions –emerged from the pandemic relatively unscathed, with e-commerce sales in Japan surging 48% for the quarter ending November 30, 2020.

“If we can extend that pace of growth and at least triple sales over the next decade, we will be able to achieve our 10 trillion-yen target,” Tadashi said in May. “We will continue to set high goals and ideals as we have always done, and then to think of how to achieve those targets and set about implementing the appropriate action.”

Profits with purpose

Beyond sales, Tadashi has continued to stay true to the values he instilled from day one, providing hands-on leadership, empowering employees, and doing good in the world, for the planet and people.

This powerful mix of profit and purpose has landed him numerous accolades, with inclusion in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world (2013) and Forbes’ 100 greatest entrepreneurial minds (2017).

A vocal advocate of the slow fashion movement, with his durable, timeless designs, Tadashi has been singing from the sustainable song sheet for four decades. Fast Retailing launched its all-product recycling initiative in 2006, established its environmental policy the following year, and has since developed technology to reduce the amount of water used in the jeans finishing process by up to 99%.

Passionate about giving back to society, Tadashi ensures a portion of profits from the business is used to help support people living in difficult circumstances, and Uniqlo works with the UNHC for Refugees, donating millions of pieces of clothing to refugees globally.

On a personal level too, Tadashi and his family donate millions to various causes and via the Yanai Tadashi Foundation, supports aspiring students in acquiring advanced knowledge on a global platform.

Keen to create a truly global team and ensure equity, Tadashi announced in January plans to hike salaries of his staff and managers in Japan by upward of 40% to match the levels of its overseas operations.

“I have said that we intend to send at least one-third of our employees overseas and bring one-third or half of the staff from overseas in order to create a genuine global headquarters,” Tadashi said during an earnings presentation in April.

His commitment to equity and fairness hasn’t always been well-received, however.

Last year, he was criticised for continuing to operate in Russia even as international pressure to isolate the country for its invasion of Ukraine saw waves of companies pull out.

Though strongly against the war, Tadashi believes clothing is a necessity of life, an email published by Nikkei asserts.

“The people of Russia have the same right to live as we do,” he said.

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