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Business

Suntory chief betting on Niinami's unfettered thinking

Under Niinami's leadership, Lawson expanded its groupwide store network to more than 10,000.

TOKYO -- Lawson Chairman Takeshi Niinami's ability to think outside the box was a crucial factor in Suntory Holdings' Nobutada Saji choosing a new leader.

     Saji, a member of the founding family, has grown the Japanese beer brewer and distiller through acquisitions. But the limits to Saji's ability to continue to lead the company alone were becoming apparent.

     Niinami told reporters on Tuesday that he has accepted the offer to serve as Suntory's president. He is expected to take the position on Oct. 1.

     Saji, 68, and Niinami, 55, are both graduates of Keio University. They have grown close since Niinami took over as president of Lawson over a decade ago, getting together for meals and golf. Niinami has not shied away from stating his case, whether in front of foreign business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos or before Japanese political and business heavyweights at the government panel on industrial competitiveness. Touting him as the No. 1 young business manager around today, Saji acknowledges that he has been nagging Niinami to come to Suntory for a long time.

     At Lawson, Niinami's original ideas helped the company grow. Natural Lawson stores, catering to health-conscious women, and a chain focused on a wide array of fresh foods were among his innovations. Pursuing a strategy different from industry leader Seven-Eleven Japan, which has a unified store format, Niinami was behind the Lawson group's opening of its 10,000th domestic store in 2011.

     Officials at rival convenience stores scoffed at Niinami for breaking the mold and being eccentric, but Niinami steadfastly held to the importance of continuing to try new things. This free thinking can be seen as the source of Niinami's appeal.

     Niinami will mainly be charged with steering Suntory's global strategy. However, his track record in leading Lawson's global push has been far from stellar, with the company still losing money in China despite being one of the first Japanese convenience store chains to enter the country. Even with these unknowns, Saji says he is willing to bet on Niinami's potential.

(Nikkei)

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