Masatoshi Ito, who took 7-Eleven stores global, dies at 98

Mr Masatoshi Ito died on March 10 due to old age, the company said in a statement on Monday. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO - Mr Masatoshi Ito, the billionaire who expanded a small family-owned shop into one of Japan’s largest retailers and took 7-Eleven convenience stores global, has died. He was 98.

Mr Ito died on March 10 due to old age, 7-Eleven operator Seven & i Holdings said in a statement on Monday, confirming earlier reports by local media.

Although his Ito-Yokado stores, which offered one-stop shopping for things from groceries to everyday clothes, lost their lustre long ago, Mr Ito’s legacy continued in the 7-Eleven franchise. The company he founded, Ito-Yokado, was the predecessor of Seven & i Holdings.

There are more than 83,000 7-Elevens dotting the globe, with about a fourth of them in Japan. Mr Ito was the company’s largest shareholder, amassing a net worth of US$5 billion (S$6.7 billion), according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Sometimes called the Sam Walton of Japan, Mr Ito was known for a decentralised business style that was influenced by his long friendship with famed management consultant Peter Drucker, who once described Mr Ito as “one of the world’s outstanding entrepreneurs and business builders”.

Ito-Yokado traces its origin to the Yokado Clothing Store that Mr Ito’s uncle Toshio Yoshikawa opened in Asakusa, Tokyo, in 1920. Mr Ito’s half-brother Yuzuru took the lead in expanding the business but died in 1956, and Mr Ito took over. He later renamed it Ito-Yokado and took it public in 1972.

The retailer continued to expand, including establishing Denny’s Japan, which brought the US-based casual restaurant chain to the country. A younger executive at Ito-Yokado, Mr Toshifumi Suzuki, discovered 7-Eleven during a visit to the United States to negotiate that deal.

After forging a deal with US-based Southland Corp, then owner of the 7-Eleven chain, Mr Suzuki opened the first outlet in Japan in 1974. That business would eventually outgrow Ito-Yokado’s general merchandising segment; in 1991 the company acquired Southland’s equity.

In 1992, Mr Ito resigned from his post at Ito-Yokado to take responsibility for alleged payments by company officials to three “yakuza” gangsters, to keep order at a shareholders’ meeting.

Mr Suzuki succeeded Mr Ito as president, later becoming chairman and chief executive officer. He renamed the business Seven & i Holdings in 2005, and 7-Eleven Inc was made a wholly owned subsidiary. Mr Ito remained as honorary chairman of the parent company, with the “i” in the name referring to Ito-Yokado and his last name.

On the urging of an activist shareholder, Seven & i is streamlining its business. In November, the retailer announced the sale of its Sogo & Seibu department stores for an enterprise value of about 250 billion yen (S$2.5 billion) to Fortress Investment Group. Last week, Seven & i said it will close roughly one out of every four of its Ito-Yokado stores in Japan. BLOOMBERG

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