TOKYO: One might not naturally associate failure with the founder and chief executive of Asia’s largest clothing retailer. But Tadashi Yanai - who also happens to be Japan’s richest man - assures us that he is well-acquainted with the term.
“I understand failure completely,” said Mr Yanai, whose company Fast Retailing is parent to the Uniqlo brand. He was speaking in an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia's Conversation With, which airs Friday night (Aug 12).
“When (Uniqlo was) expanding overseas, we failed in Britain, right? We failed in China. We failed again in America,” he said matter-of-factly, methodically checking off the list of past defeats with his fingers.
The Japanese clothing giant had tried to enter the United Kingdom market in 2001, opening 21 stores within two years. But the company was growing too fast. This, coupled with mismanagement of its UK stores, soon forced Uniqlo to close 16 of them.
“It was a huge loss,” Mr Yanai recalled.
Watch: The story behind Uniqlo's unique brand name.
But the 67-year-old Japanese, who built up Uniqlo from a humble store in Hiroshima in 1984 into the fourth-largest clothing retailer in the world today, is not daunted by such missteps.
Instead, for the man whose life philosophy is “nine failures, one success”, the business journey is all about aiming for the “gold medal”.
He was born in 1949, the son of a tailor. His father ran a small clothing business making suits for Japanese salarymen. But Mr Yanai had a very different vision about clothes, moving away from formal bespoke suits to casual wear that were able to sell in large volume.
Business magazine Forbes calculates that Mr Yanai is today Japan’s richest man based on his share ownership in Fast Retailing.
And he is set to get even wealthier, given his vision of making Fast Retailing the “number one” clothing retailer in the world by 2020.
“We are on track for that… we have the ability to do it, without a doubt,” Mr Yanai said confidently.
When asked why he was not satisfied with being second or third, Mr Yanai retorted: “There's no option for us to say that at the Olympics, we're just aiming for the bronze medal. We don’t say that.
“We want to do our very best to get the gold medal,” he added.
Mr Yanai’s combative spirit is reflected in Uniqlo’s aggressive expansion campaign not just in Asia, but also in European and American markets which have traditionally been dominated by Western competitors such Inditex, the Spain-based company behind Zara, and Swedish H&M.
Each week, a new Uniqlo store opens somewhere in the world. But the sprightly and bespectacled businessman is not worried that Uniqlo is opening too many branches, too soon, again.
Citing the UK as an example, Mr Yanai said that the 10 Uniqlo stores in London now have been doing “exceptionally well” and are “all making profits”.
He points to Asia’s economic boom as the greatest stimulator for the company’s growth, adding: “What the Chinese (did) could also happen in Southeast Asia.”
Uniqlo is the largest clothing retailer in China.
But even with the push to become the world’s “number one” in full swing, Mr Yanai is more preoccupied with another pressing issue: Finding his successor.
Mr Yanai is not only founder and CEO of Fast Retailing, he also assumes the titles of president, chairman and owner – a multi-role he describes as “being almighty”.
The self-professed "tough boss" confesses that he has failed many times in his quest to find his protege.
“Right now, I don't need a successor who is like me,” Mr Yanai said.
“A job like this can't be done alone. Therefore, ideally, I would want to form a team to split all this work up with a good CEO, and this person will continue to direct operations,” he added.
And he is anxious to get them started working as a team.
“I want to know if my team of successors can do a good job as soon as possible. I hope they could assume the role of protecting the company's interests.”
Watch the full interview on Conversation With, on Channel NewsAsia, Aug 12 at 8pm (SG/HK). Or catch it streamed live here.