Saturday, 25 Mar 2023

Masatoshi Ito, 98, the King of Convenience Stores in Japan, Dies

TOKYO — Masatoshi Ito, who built a Japanese retail empire and helped fundamentally change the country’s consumer culture with the introduction there of the American convenience store 7-Eleven, died on Friday. He was 98.

Seven & I Holdings, the company he founded, which acquired majority control of 7-Eleven, confirmed the death in a statement on Monday. It did not say where he died.

Mr. Ito’s experience in retail started with a family-owned clothing store in Tokyo. He then founded Ito-Yokado, a chain of grocery stores that became the foundation for one of the world’s most valuable retail empires, earning him the admiration of management gurus at home and abroad.

Perhaps his greatest contribution to modern Japan began in 1973, when a young executive persuaded him to bring 7-Eleven to the country. Starting with a single store in Tokyo, the deal he struck with the chain’s owners, the Dallas-based Southland company, launched a revolution in Japanese retailing that would transform everything from the way companies moved their products to the way people eat.

The company’s introduction of the ready-to-eat rice ball to store shelves in 1978 made that humble snack into a central part of the country’s fast food culture.

In the decades that followed, 7-Eleven and its imitators would open tens of thousands of convenience stores across Japan, providing a wide range of goods and services. The shops — open 24 hours a day, every day of the year — became so integral to daily life that the government declared them part of the national infrastructure.

Under Mr. Ito, 7-Eleven Japan quickly outgrew its progenitor, Southland. In 1991, Ito-Yokado purchased a controlling stake in the American retailer, making it a Japanese company.

But that success quickly soured into scandal, and Mr. Ito stepped down in 1992 in response to accusations that Ito-Yokado had paid off Japanese racketeers who had threatened to disrupt its annual meetings.

Mr. Ito later became honorary chairman of 7-Eleven’s holding company, Seven & I, where he continued to have significant influence on the company’s operations. Today there are more than 80,000 7-Elevens worldwide, with more than 21,000 in Japan.

Masatoshi Ito was born on April 30, 1924, in Tokyo to Senzo and Yuki Ito, who ran a dry goods shop called Yokado.

In 1944, fresh out of high school, Mr. Ito spent a brief period in the Japanese military and at a Japanese company before joining Yokado, which he took over in 1956 after the death of his older brother. In 1958, he founded the company that would go on to become Ito-Yokado and, in 2005, Seven & I.

In 1961, as Japan continued to recover from the destruction of World War II, Mr. Ito traveled to the United States and there “experienced a kind of cultural shock at how rich everybody seemed,” he said in a 1988 interview with The Journal of Japanese Trade and Industry. He added, “I became particularly conscious of the sheer size of America’s consumer society and the distribution techniques that made it all possible.”

Convinced that Japan would soon follow the same development path, Mr. Ito devoted himself to building a chain of supermarkets inspired by the American model. He began making regular trips to the U.S., and by the 1970s Ito-Yokado had become one of Japan’s top retailers, going public in 1972.

But the company’s fate changed forever the next year, when a young executive, Toshifumi Suzuki, traveled to the U.S. in search of new business opportunities. Convinced that smaller shops like 7-Eleven could be the future of Japanese retail, he talked Mr. Ito into taking a gamble on the operation. They opened a small shop in Tokyo’s Toyosu neighborhood in 1974.

Before long, stores began opening up all over Japan, introducing new ideas about how to run retail operations, including the use of franchising to expand market share and instituting 24-hour operations.

By the late 1980s, Ito-Yokado had become a Japanese business empire with super stores, department stores, a nationwide chain of Denny’s restaurants and more than 4,000 7-Elevens, all generating over $12 billion in annual sales.

In 1989, 7-Eleven Japan took over operations of franchises in Hawaii — a popular destination for Japanese tourists, many of whom expressed disappointed that the American stores were not up to snuff in comparison with Japan’s outlets.

A little over a year later, as 7-Eleven’s American owner, Southland, faced financial collapse, Ito-Yokado struck a $430 million deal to purchase 70 percent of the company. Mr. Ito wanted to buy the operation because he feared that the company’s management, which he viewed as shoddy, would damage the brand in Japan, he told Nikkei Business in a 1996 interview.

The victory, however, was short-lived. In 1992, Mr. Ito announced he was stepping down as Ito-Yokado’s president after three executives at the company were accused of providing payoffs to corporate shakedown artists who had threatened to disrupt the company’s annual meeting, a common racket at the time.

Replaced by his protégé, Mr. Suzuki, Mr. Ito stayed out of the public view for several years before re-emerging in the late 1990s, when he was appointed Ito-Yokado’s honorary chairman. In 2005, the company became Seven & I, combining the convenience store’s name with the first initial of its predecessor. Mr. Ito remained honorary chairman until his death.

Information about his survivors was not immediately available.

Reflecting on his success in the 1988 interview with The Journal of Japanese Trade and Industry, Mr. Ito displayed a disarming modesty.

“I am frequently asked if I succeeded because of hard work or because I was just lucky,” he said. “The answer is some of both.”

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