Leadership: Mr. Yanai’s DNA

I’m struck by the simple clarity of one Japanese CEO. Read these comments, in his own words, from Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Fast Retailing. If you’ve been watching Japan, you’ve seen his company, the freshness of his approach, the attitude that touches every part of his business, including his people. This is the essence of his recent interview in the Wall Street Journal. Fast Retailing Co. (you might know it as Uniqlo) operates 1,974 stores around the world, an impressive footprint, given that it opened up its first Uniqlo store just 8 years ago. By comparison, The Gap operates 3,100 stores and Inditex Group (Zara) operates 4,264 stores. Here’s his ambitious tag line: Changing clothes. Changing conventional wisdom. Change the world.

Clarity of goal: He aims to make his company Asia’s leading fashion retailer within 5 years and “the worlds No. 1 fashion retailer by 2020.”

Hierarchy: “Store managers are our most important employees. If the head office disappeared, the business could still go on while we rebuilt headquarters.”

Global thinking: “How much we leave up to the local staff varies [during expansion] but the basic ideas and operations have to be the same everywhere.”

Global integration of operations and culture: “If we bought a company based in New York, we would even consider moving all of the top management, including myself, to New York. We would have to be ready to go that far if we were to become a truly global company.” Asked about how he manages brands in different regions around the world: “Differences in culture and fashion trends from region to region aren’t so crucial. Far more important is communicating substantial information on what kind of company we are and how we run our business. As long as we get this part right, we can succeed anywhere.”

And this powerful message: “We can’t escape our DNA. It’s both our strength and weakness. Our Japanese origins are necessary and useful if we want to differentiate ourselves. But what we want to emphasize is not the old, traditional Japan, rather the new Japan, what Japan is becoming.” To cap it off, here is his approach to adaptation and risk-taking, so uncharacteristic of Japan: To seek growth in a changing environment, companies have to repeatedly reinvent themselves, and this process involves far more failures than successes.


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