Tadashi Yanai: the lazy youth who found a gold mine

Japanese billionaire Tadashi Yanai had a relaxed start to life, but since discovering a talent for high-street fashion, he is bent on world domination. Jane Lewis reports.

935-Yanai-634

Tadashi Yanai: inspired by Next

© 2017 Bloomberg Finance LP

When asked recently to describe what guides his vision, the Japanese founder and CEO of Uniqlo, Tadashi Yanai, produced an unusual historical artefact a 1987 catalogue from the mass-market British retailer, Next. "All the clothes are so classic that they could be worn today," he observed approvingly.

An 1980s high-street catalogue is hardly everyone's idea of a fashion bible, but Yanai is an Anglophile who found early inspiration in the way Next, and another of his early favourites, M&S, sold "timeless basics" to virtually everyone. Uniqlo clothes, he says, are similarly "geared to all types of people": from billionaires like himself he often sports a polo shirt to "the lower end".

A long shot to the top

Yanai now reckons "rising Asia will push his firm to number one". In the process, the ever-competitive Yanai has also got a lot richer himself. Between 2013 and 2018 when Uniqlo was opening new stores at the rate of around one a week Yanai's net worth jumped from $15.5bn to $24bn.

"A slight, wiry man, with alarmingly short grey hair cropped as if for the priesthood", Yanai is "bent on world domination" and says the urge to achieve it gets stronger the older he gets, says the Financial Times. "There is a toughness, almost a pugilism about himHis face is stern, though beneath is a hint of amusement. Every so often, he bears his teeth as he erupts into laughter."

Astonishingly for someone now so driven, Yanai admits to being a lazy youth. Born in 1949, in the mining town of Ube in Yamaguchi Prefecture, where his parents ran a clothing store, he describes himself as "not that hungry" or "motivated" to work, says ABS-CBN (Philippines). Above all, he wanted to avoid getting stuck in the family firm. While studying politics and economics at Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University, Yanai "devoted much of his time to mahjong and pachinko", says the FT. But he also soaked up American culture and student activism, and travelled abroad to the UK.

After graduating in 1971, he worked briefly for a supermarket chain before reluctantly returning to his father's suit-and-tie shop, which he set about expanding. In 1984, he achieved his main aim of launching a "casual clothes" outlet, establishing the first branch of the Unique Clothing Warehouse (soon to become Uniqlo) in the back streets of Hiroshima.

Set wild goals and achieve them

There is a slang term, "unibare", meaning "to be caught wearing Uniqlo clothes". But no amount of brand snobbery can stifle Yanai's full-throttle expansion plans and he has two consecutive years of record profits under his belt. Despite the promotion of two of his sons to executive positions, the 70-year-old is as active as ever. As one business partner concludes: "he knows how to set a wild goal and achieve it".

Recommended

Do Kwon: the King of Crypto Lunatics
People

Do Kwon: the King of Crypto Lunatics

Cryptocurrency entrepreneur Do Kwon liked to ruffle feathers and stir things up in his industry. But the collapse of his empire has left investors des…
19 May 2022
MacKenzie Scott: America’s fairy godmother
People

MacKenzie Scott: America’s fairy godmother

MacKenzie Scott pledged to keep on giving money away till the safe was empty when she split from husband Jeff Bezos. That’s easier said than done when…
7 May 2022
Alex Jones: America’s top crank goes bust
People

Alex Jones: America’s top crank goes bust

Alex Jones is the world’s loudest and most prolific conspiracy theorist. Now his claims have failed to stand up in court and his Infowars website has …
1 May 2022
Howard Schultz: taking a third shot as Starbucks CEO
People

Howard Schultz: taking a third shot as Starbucks CEO

Howard Schultz turned a small Seattle concern into a global coffee chain. Now he’s back at the helm to revive its fortunes. Can he overcome market sce…
24 Apr 2022

Most Popular

Imperial Brands has an 8.3% yield – but what’s the catch?
Share tips

Imperial Brands has an 8.3% yield – but what’s the catch?

Tobacco company Imperial Brands boasts an impressive dividend yield, and the shares look cheap. But investors should beware, says Rupert Hargreaves. H…
20 May 2022
Barry Norris: we’re already in the 1970s. Here’s how to invest
Investment strategy

Barry Norris: we’re already in the 1970s. Here’s how to invest

Merryn talks to Barry Norris of Argonaut capital about the parallels between now and the 1970s; the transition to “green” energy; and the one sector w…
19 May 2022
Share tips of the week – 20 May
Share tips

Share tips of the week – 20 May

MoneyWeek’s comprehensive guide to the best of this week’s share tips from the rest of the UK's financial pages.
20 May 2022