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Interview

Is Uniqlo's founder finally ready to let go of the reins?

Next chief executive needs to be a world-class player, Yanai says

Fast Retailing Chairman and CEO Tadashi Yanai discussed his successor plans with The Nikkei recently.

TOKYO -- Tadashi Yanai is looking to step down as CEO of Uniqlo operator Fast Retailing in a few years, but only if he can find the right heir to the world's third-largest apparel empire. The iconic businessman admits that finding someone who meets all of the necessary requirements is no easy task.

Yanai discussed the challenges in cultivating new talent in a recent interview with The Nikkei. Edited excerpts follow.

Q: You've said before that you want to focus on being chairman when you turn 70. You're now 68.

A: I said I wanted to, if I can. I can't retire because I am the founder, but at some point I will no longer have the stamina and mental power to handle every aspect of management. We have a lot of young people in the company, so I want young managers to be in charge of it all.

Q: You wanted a successor from within the company. Are you satisfied with your choices right now?

A: Not yet. It's hard to find top-notch talent. The fact is, in terms of the retail and apparel sectors, there aren't any incredibly impressive executives even in Europe or the U.S. But we will not bring in someone from the outside. I think our only option is to work on internal talent.

Executives can only grow on the job. A section chief is only a section chief. You can't take over the company unless you have delivered results and shown promise in top management posts, like chief operating officer.

Q: More foreigners now head up Uniqlo's overseas operations as top executives. Do you have any thoughts about the nationality of your successor?

A: It would be best for someone local to head operations in each country, like a Japanese person in Japan and a Chinese person in China. That would allow them to achieve their full potential. It is important for my successor to be able to cooperate with the local headquarters and regional branches in every country.

A leader needs to be able to both follow and lead. They will have a hard time if they can't make decisions on their own and take risks. We will pick the best person for the job from across the world.

Q: Can Japanese people become leaders?

A: I always say this, but Japanese people are not good at teamwork. If there is one ball, everybody chases after it. Teamwork involves drawing on your own strengths, while also making use of the people who are good at kicking or shooting goals. That way, the ball reaches the goal organically.

Eventually, categories such as logistics, retail and manufacturing will disappear. As globalization and digitization continue, more Japanese will be working on the global stage just like more people are coming to Japan. The next CEO needs to be someone who can work across borders.

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Yoshihiro Hara

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