Masatoshi Ito, the Japanese billionaire behind the rise of 7-Eleven, dies at 98

Hong Kong/Tokyo (CNN) Masatoshi Ito, the Japanese billionaire who turned 7-Eleven convenience stores into a global empire, has died at the age of 98.

Seven & I Holdings (SVNDF)operator of 7-Eleven, confirmed the death in a statement Monday, adding that Ito died of old age on March 10.

“We wish to express our deepest gratitude for your kindness and friendship during his lifetime and respectfully inform you of his passing,” the company said.

Ito transformed everyday retail in Japan, turning a US-born company into an international brand, particularly in Asia, where 7-Eleven stores are rarely more than a few minutes’ walk away in many cities.

Seven & I Holdings now operates more than 83,000 stores worldwide, including 7-Eleven stores in 19 regions and countries, as well as the Speedway supermarket chain in the United States.

A 7-Eleven supermarket in Japan’s Kanagawa prefecture, on Jan. 9, 2023.

Its main competitors are Japanese-owned convenience store franchises Lawson and Family Mart, but neither has reached the sheer size or global reach of the 7-Eleven empire.

Ito’s business acumen was influenced by his friendship with the late management consultant Peter Drucker, who described Ito as “one of the world’s best entrepreneurs and business builders”.

In a 1988 interview with The Journal of Japanese Trade and Industry, Ito said he traveled to the US in 1960 and “experienced a kind of cultural shock about how wealthy everyone seemed” at a time when Japan was recovering from the aftermath of World War II . .

“I became especially aware of the sheer size of the American consumer society and the distribution techniques that made all this possible,” he said.

“Then it occurred to me that people in different cultures still have essentially the same desires, assuming they go through the same development, and I thought that the Japanese distribution system would become more like America’s as Japan’s consumer society grew. “

The rise of 7-Eleven

The supermarket chain has its origins in 1927, when several ice cream companies merged to form the Southland Ice Company in Dallas, Texas.

To reflect their extended hours, the stores were renamed 7-Eleven in 1946: open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

So, how did 7-Eleven become synonymous with Japanese convenience store culture as we know it today?

Ito is the post-war entrepreneur who helped it become a global brand selling everything from yogurt to ready meals and medicines through a series of acquisitions and expansions between the 1970s and 1990s.
According to the state broadcaster NHK, Ito started in 1958, when he became president of a small clothing store in Tokyo run by his family.

He later started selling food and other daily necessities. He renamed the company Ito Yokado and started running the company like an American supermarket.

Ito Yokado later forged a deal with 7-Eleven’s owner, the Southland Corporation, and opened Japan’s first 7-Eleven in Tokyo in 1974.

His company subsequently acquired a controlling interest in Southland in March 1991. A year later, Ito resigned as president of Ito Yokado “to take responsibility for alleged payouts to extortionists by corporate officials,” according to NHK.

In 2005, Seven & I Holdings was established as the holding company of Ito-Yokado and Seven-Eleven Japan, and Ito remained honorary chairman until his death.

Reflecting on 7-Eleven’s success, Ito said in the 1988 interview, “I’m often asked if I succeeded through hard work or because I was just lucky. The answer is one of both.”

This story has been updated with additional details.






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