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Top>People>Becoming Japan's Largest Integrated Retail Distribution Group by Standing in the Customer's Position and Using Breakthrough Thinking


Toshifumi Suzuki

Toshifumi Suzuki [Profile]

Becoming Japan's Largest Integrated Retail Distribution Group by Standing in the Customer's Position and Using Breakthrough Thinking

Mr. Toshifumi Suzuki
Seven & i Holdings Representative Director and CEO

Leading Japan's largest integrated retail distribution group, consisting of convenience stores, supermarkets, department stores and restaurants, as well as financial and IT services, is Toshifumi Suzuki. Extending into 15 countries and territories, it boasts approximately 37,500 stores and sees an average of 36 million customers daily. Mr. Suzuki is a Japanese businessman who is gaining attention overseas. But in 1963, at age 30, he joined Yokado, then with a staff of 500 and 5 stores, with no idea of what kind of company it was. Noting that he asked, “What is a supermarket?” it is enough to say he was starting out from scratch.

Mr. Suzuki didn't enter Yokado because he wanted to work in the retail distribution industry. He was initially employed at publishing giant Tokyo Shuppan Hanbai (now Tohan Corporation) after graduating from Chuo University in 1956. A scheme to establish an independent production company making TV programs was floated with acquaintances he made while editing the advertising magazine Shinkan News. It was Yokado that they approached for backing.

Actually, this wasn't his first encounter with Yokado. He didn't totally dislike his work at Tohan, but he asked his friend from his university days if “he knew of something more interesting” when talking about a change of jobs. His friend introduced him to Yokado and he went to an interview there, but Mr. Suzuki declined this opportunity because, as he puts it, “it wasn't my kind of work.”

As fate would have it, when he returned to Yokado looking for a sponsor for the production company, the reply he received was more than he could have wished for. “OK,” he was told. “If you are going to do this, will you come and work for us?” With that, Mr. Suzuki left Tohan and joined Yokado.

“Although,” he says, “it was good getting a job at the company, I was told that the establishment of the production company would have to wait. That wasn't what I had been led to believe and I thought about quitting, but I had just changed jobs despite firm opposition from many people, and Tohan had tried to stop me from leaving, so my self-respect wouldn't allow me to resign and I stayed put at Yokado.

Mr. Suzuki recalls that fate is a strange thing. He had no idea what kind of company Yokado was. His friend told him, “a supermarket is smaller than a department store and bigger than a retail store. But they are going to expand in the near future.” Even so, it can only be said that for Mr. Suzuki, who had no interest in sales, and regardless of the chain of events to follow, entering Yokado was a heaven-sent fate.

“Now,” he notes, “the group has become the largest in the Japanese retail distribution industry. This happened quite naturally. From the start I never thought that this company would become the largest retail distribution company in Japan and it was beyond my wildest dreams that I would eventually end up head of the company.”

Mr. Suzuki may reflect on the past in this way, but the only reason it became Japan's largest retail distribution group was through Mr. Suzuki's outstanding business savvy and his ability to read consumer's minds.

Seven-Eleven Japan was founded in November 1973 when Mr. Suzuki was 40. It was an era when shopping streets were in decline and supermarkets were increasing in number, but there was great opposition to the building of convenience stores. He would hear from consultants and university marketing professors that, “even if they are introduced, they won't be profitable in Japan.” But Mr. Suzuki thought otherwise. “You can't meet all of the needs of the customers with only large retail outlets,” he thought. “If you build a store different from the retail stores you see now, and stock it with various products, it is bound to make a profit.”

Dissenting voices were again heard in January 2000 when he started a project to develop an independent bank. ATMs (automatic teller machines) are now a familiar sight at Seven-Eleven stores, but at the time banks were saying, “It won't work. Our banks have ATMs and they are all losing money.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Suzuki went ahead with the project, thinking, “Even if the banks say it is impossible, I can definitely envision many users.” At a 24 hour convenience store you can withdraw and deposit money at any time. This is because he thought it would be far more useful compared to banks which close at 3pm on weekdays and stay shut on weekends and public holidays.

“I am always trying to look at things from the customer's stance,” he says. This means thinking how you would feel if you were the customer, and trying to see things from the customer's point of view.

“Many people make decisions based on past experiences,” he notes. “Trying to expand on what has worked well up until now, or imitating something that was written in a book. But the world is always witnessing great change, and my way of thinking is that I must create something to adapt to those changes.”

In emphasizing this, Mr. Suzuki says that breakthrough thinking lies in basic management. “When looking to the future,” he says, “you must think about what needs to be done now. The world is continuing to change and you have to look at the present from the vantage point of the future. You have to think about how to act now.” That is breakthrough thinking.

Mr. Suzuki will continue to use breakthrough thinking regardless of opposing opinions, and will continue his challenge of putting himself in his customers' position.

(Revised version of an interview in Hakumon Chuo from Spring 2010. Editor: Hiroshi Ito)

Mr. Toshifumi Suzuki
Born in Nagano Prefecture in 1932. Graduated from the Faculty of Economics, Chuo University. Entered Tokyo Shuppan Hanbai (now Tohan Corporation) before joining Ito-Yokado in September 1963. Founded Seven-Eleven Japan in November 1973. Appointed Representative Director and CEO of Ito-Yokado and Seven-Eleven Japan in May 2003. Established Seven & i Holdings in September 2005 and appointed Representative Director and CEO. Awarded honorary doctorate by Chuo University in November 2003. Served as Chair of the Board of Regents of Chuo University (November 2005-May 2008). Honorary Chairman of Nanko Club.