We didn’t expect the Tadashi Yanai we met at Fairmont Hotel the afternoon of Uniqlo’s global flagship store launch. As opposed to the staid, humorless image portrayed of him in news videos, the man with salt-and-pepper hair who sat across us was as easy and light as the button-down gingham shirts sold in any of his 3,500 stores worldwide. In his deep blue suit (not Uniqlo) and grid-print polo (Uniqlo), sporting an inexpensive-looking dress watch in silver which he gladly took off to show us (the brand is Knot, a friend of Uniqlo, and retails for USD140), the man jokes, and laughs, and is cool enough to admit to disaster-causing business decisions he made in the past.
When you think about it, when your net worth is beyond $24 billion, what is there to be humorless about?
Yesterday especially, after being pleasantly surprised with how “perfect” the Uniqlo Manila global flagship store turned out. “My expectation was not that high,” he says, speaking through an interpreter inside one of the hotel’s function rooms. “As a flagship store, this is definitely the top notch class of the world.”
The store, located at Glorietta 5 in Ayala Avenue, a two-level, 4,100 square-meter mecca of basic apparel and advanced-tech fashion, is a testament to Tadashi’s faith in the Philippine market, and faith in Teresita—which is how he refers to SM’s Tessie Sy Coson who brought Uniqlo to the country six years ago. “While other companies may dilly dally in entering the market— not Uniqlo,” Coson said in her speech later that evening, amidst raised phone cameras and an audience of giddy millennials. “Mr. Yanai decided to come in after just over a year of research, and a 24-hour visit to the Philippines incognito. He liked what he saw, and was determined to open 500 stores in the Philippines. That was when we decided to work together.”
Yanai is a visionary and a hands-on worker, the SM Investments Corporation Co-Vice Chair added. “He knows what’s going on in all aspects of his business, and he knows how to set a wild goal and achieve it.”
This wasn’t always the case, as we would find out. For the young Yanai, work was the last thing in his mind after university. “I was not that hungry for work. I was not motivated to work. My preference was not to work my entire life, that's how I was,” he tells us. “My father demanded that I need to find work at Jusco [general merchandise stores]. So regretfully I got a job.” People in Japan usually start working in April but it would take another month before Yanai started clocking in. At Jusco, he sold a variety of merchandise including kitchenware and was in charge of the menswear department, replenishing stocks on the selling floor. It wasn’t a very smooth stint. “The floor manager was always complaining to me because I was supposed to wear a tie, and that I was not supposed to wear a pair of jeans to work. But I was wearing jeans, and no tie, and I came to work. My job was just to replenish the products of the shop; how could the necktie help me?” Yanai explains, sparking laughter in the room. “The floor manager demanded I should be properly dressed in front of the customers, and I didn’t like it.”
By February of the following year, he quit. Jusco, he said, was a good company but he “didn’t know anything about the business.”
The next step for Yanai was to join his father’s railroad tailoring store at 23. The business was located in the first floor of a building, the second floor of which was home to the Yanais—which they also shared with the store associates; this was Tadashi’s upbringing. “I had nowhere to go so my father asked me to help his business,” the Japanese retail titan recalls. “Ironically I found out it was fun.” It would take time before he got to that fun part, however, having earlier established a personal aversion to formal wear. “My father’s business is selling suits and tie—that's why I didn't like to join my father’s business in the beginning.” He would soon find the endeavor interesting enough, and realized he was cut out for business. “I realized that not having any preconceived notion is important; that you might want to first try something. That’s my learning from this experience.”
And he’s tried many things since, of course, and succeeded. He is now the most successful businessman in Japan, sitting on top of Fast Retailing which holds Uniqlo as a subsidiary. He opened the first Uniqlo, then called the Unique Clothing Warehouse, in Hiroshima in 1984 when he became president of his father’s clothing chain. Says Yanai, “At that time I thought I found a gold mine. I thought we could have a very successful business running Uniqlo stores all over Japan.” He was right. He grew the business fast: opening more than 300 stores across Japan in just four years.
Yanai was never one to get scared of making mistakes, a true quality of a visionary. “When we became successful in Japan, we ventured out to build our store in London. At that time we experienced doubling of our turnover: so 100 billion [yen] became 200 billion [yen, which became] 400 billion. In a matter of two or three years, our turnover was from 1 billion dollars to 4 billion dollars—that’s what we experienced in Japan. So that encouraged me to go to London and have a new store. The store was reasonably successful as a matter of fact. As a business at large, it was a disaster.” He said it was caused by building a gigantic headquarter in Europe, a suggestion from his managers who were ex Marks and Spencer people. “That was a failure,” he says now. “That was a disaster.”
There might be many things Japanese about Uniqlo’s merchandise: it’s simple, it’s practical, and not very expensive. There is also a very American aesthetic about it—the ginghams, the stripes, the sportswear—America being Japan’s greatest influence after the war. “We are passionate about offering clothing that is appreciated by everyone in the market place," explains Yanai about this merging of two cultures within Uniqlo, his most successful brand (under Fast Retailing, there is also Helmut Lang, Theory, and J Brand among others). "We wanted to make sure that our products are geared to all types of people: whether they are billionaires, the middle class, the lower end. We need to cater to all, just like Marks and Spencer or Gap or the current H&M and Zara. Unless we cater to all segments of life and segments of people, we cannot be successful.”
The businessman mentions the name Tasuku Honjo, this year’s Nobel Prize winner for Physiology, when asked for his insights on success. “He was bold enough to say, Never believe what is written in literature or textbooks. Look at things with your own eyes,” offers Yanai. “He [also] talked about the “Six C’s. C stands for courage. And for concentration. For continuity and, what else?” He pauses to reach something from the bottom pocket of his suit jacket. “As a matter of fact this is part of my speech tonight.” People around him laugh as he unfolds a small sheet of yellow paper. “And challenge! But curiosity comes first. And then confidence. These are the six Cs that you need. And you need to look at what’s the real essence of things.”
Yanai’s goal is for Uniqlo to surpass the world’s biggest names in his category, H&M and Zara, by refocusing his company’s strengths to the Asian market. “Next week, we will be announcing a financial result of a 2.1 trillion yen,” he says. Which is close to a 20 billion USD turnover.
What indeed is there for Tadashi Yanai to not be happy about?
Photographs by Berwin Coroza, except for store photos.