Business Times - 20 Jun 2009
The emperor's quality clothes
Tadashi Yanai, the chairman, president and CEO of Fast Retailing, transformed a modest family business into one of the biggest clothing retailers in the world. His next target - to be number one. By Arthur Sim
TADASHI Yanai exudes a self-effacing bonhomie and jokes that growing up in the hippie era in Japan, he had hoped that he would not have to work for a living. But work he did and as the chairman, president and CEO of Fast Retailing, he transformed a family business into one of the biggest clothing retailers in the world. In the process he has become Japan's richest man with a fortune estimated at US$6.1 billion. His hugely successful chain, Uniqlo, is now a household name.
It is affordable clothing, but Mr Yanai bristles at the suggestion that it is anything but 'quality' apparel.
Quality is the brand positioning that is clearly important to the 60-year-old businessman. And understandably so, given the investment Fast Retailing has pumped into the business over the years.
The company began as a small family business started by Mr Yanai's father in the 1960s. At the time, the company, which comprised a couple of stores in Yamaguchi, did a respectable business with a turnover of about US$1 million a year selling staid menswear. Tadashi Yanai had no particular interest in fashion in his younger days but joined the family business anyway after graduating from the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo.
He worked on the shop floor for a few years and found he liked working with people; more importantly, he realised he had a knack for merchandising. Subsequently, he changed the formal menswear clothing line to a more casual one.
Not long after that, the first Uniqlo store was opened in 1984.
At about this time, China was becoming the factory of the world so it was no surprise that Uniqlo's stock was increasingly sourced from the mainland.
However, the Japanese shopper is very demanding when it comes to quality and instead of simply outsourcing production to Chinese factories, Fast Retailing also exported Japanese expertise in textiles and manufacturing by sending its specialists, called takumis, to oversee production.
These takumis remain a vital cog in the engine of Fast Retailing still because they help Uniqlo not only compete in terms of price points but quality as well.
Uniqlo now counts on about 70 such 'partner' factories located mostly in China, producing about 500 million clothing items a year. Today, about 90 per cent of Uniqlo products are manufactured in China.
The productivity level of these factories is something Mr Yanai is also particularly proud off, saying that most other clothing producers would need 1,000 factories to produce at this rate.
It comes down to manpower, he says, explaining through an interpreter that each factory has about 20,000 staff on board.
Uniqlo has also about 170 staff responsible solely for quality and production control alone. They visit the factories up to four days each week to conduct checks.
How Fast Retailing manages to run the factories at optimum efficiency and maintain costs, however, remains a bit of a trade secret, with Mr Yanai saying only that they have built up 'good relationships' over the years.
By controlling all processes of production, from design to procurement to manufacturing, Fast Retailing can manage the costs more efficiently.
But if some are still intrigued by how Uniqlo can produce quality clothes at such affordable prices - popular skinny jeans costs S$69.90 while signature T-shirts go for S$24.90 - they will be completely confounded by Fast Retailing's g.u. brand with jeans at about S$20.
How g.u. does it is a question that inevitably has to be asked, but this time Mr Yanai is more forthcoming. He says that if one looks around the region, especially at developing Asian countries, a S$20 pair of jeans is really not so hard to fathom.
In recent years, Fast Retailing has also started to produce clothes in lower-cost countries with g.u. -- which Mr Yanai does actually consider cheap - produced in Cambodia.
Mr Yanai expects to triple the number of g.u. stores by 2013 and the timing could not be better. 'When salaries don't rise, it's human inclination to want to buy things as cheaply as possible,' he said in an interview in Tokyo recently.
The success of Fast Retailing has been said to be counter-cyclical, with sales rising even as the economy sinks. Indeed, Japan's 'lost decade' of the 1990s was very much the period in which Uniqlo established itself as a major player by supplying millions with 'quality basics'.
Now, with a global recession upon us again, it is very likely that Fast Retailing and Uniqlo will become even more indispensable. And Mr Yanai may have to keep working hard.
Chairman, president and CEO Fast Retailing
· Born in Yamaguchi, Japan on Feb 7, 1949
· Studied political science and economics at Waseda University, Tokyo
· Started working in the family business, Ogori Shoji Co, in 1972 and became president and CEO in 1984
· First Uniqlo store opens in Hiroshima, Japan in 1984
· Changed Ogori Shoji Co to Fast Retailing Co in 1991 and became chairman and CEO in 2002
· First downtown Uniqlo store opens in Harajuku, Tokyo in 1998
· Shanghai office set up to further enhance production management in 1999
· Overseas expansion begins with London stores opening in 2001
· Takes equity stake in Link International/Theory in 2004
· Petit Vehicule/Princesse tam.tam becomes subsidiary in 2006. Takes stakes in Cabin Co and Viewcompany Co in 2006
· First Uniqlo store opens in Singapore in 2009
· Named Japan's richest man by Forbes