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, closing the chapter on one of Asia’s most storied retail entrepreneurs.
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 would like to express our deepest gratitude for your kindness and friendship throughout his life and to respectfully inform you of his passing,” the company said.
Ito transformed everyday retail in Japan, transforming a US-born company into an international brand, particularly in Asia, where 7-Eleven stores are within walking distance in many cities.
Seven & I Holdings today operates more than 83,000 stores around the world, including 7-Eleven stores in 19 regions and countries and convenience store chain Speedway in the United States.
A 7-Eleven supermarket in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, on January 9, 2023.
Key competitors include Japanese-owned convenience store franchises Lawson and Family Mart, but neither has matched 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 pre-eminent entrepreneurs and founders”.
In a 1988 interview with the Journal of Japanese Trade and Industry, Ito said he traveled to the United States in 1960 and experienced “a sort of culture shock with how rich everyone seemed to be” at a time when Japan was breaking away from the Recovering from the aftermath of World War II.
“I was particularly struck by the sheer size of American consumer society and the distribution techniques that made it all possible,” he was quoted as saying.
“Then it occurred to me that people in different cultures still have basically the same desires provided they are at the same level of development, and I thought that as Japanese consumer society grew larger, Japan’s distribution system would become more and more similar to America’s .”
The Rise of 7-Eleven
The convenience store chain dates back to 1927 when several cold storage companies merged to form Southland Ice Company in Dallas, Texas.
In 1946, to reflect their extended opening hours, the stores were renamed 7-Eleven: open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m
How did 7-Eleven become synonymous with Japanese convenience store culture as we know it today?
Ito is the post-war entrepreneur credited with becoming a global brand through a series of acquisitions and expansions between the 1970s and 1990s, selling everything from yogurt to ready meals and medicines.
According to state broadcaster NHK, Ito got his start in 1958 when he became president of a small clothing store in Tokyo run by his family.
He later started selling groceries and other necessities. He renamed the company Ito Yokado and ran the business like a US supermarket.
Ito Yokado later forged a deal with 7-Eleven’s owner, Southland Corporation, and opened Japan’s first 7-Eleven in Tokyo in 1974.
His company then 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 company officials,” according to NHK.
In 2005, Seven & I Holdings was formed as the holding company of Ito-Yokado and Seven-Eleven Japan, and Ito remained their honorary chairman until his death.
Looking back on the success of 7-Eleven, Ito was quoted as saying in the 1988 interview, “I’m often asked if my success was due to hard work or just luck. The answer is something of both.”
This story has been updated with additional details.