Fast Retailing CEO upbeat despite Asia tensions

Uniqlo owner's ambitions undimmed by slowing mainland economy and Sino-Japanese disputes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 4:36pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 March, 2014, 12:35am

Japan's Fast Retailing, the parent company of casual wear chain Uniqlo, says slowing economic growth in mainland China and strained Sino-Japanese relations will not hold back its ambition to become the world's largest apparel retailer.

"I believe no matter how the economy turns, our business can be accepted whether in Hong Kong, the mainland or Japan … regardless of economic climate we will make our stride forward," chief executive Tadashi Yanai said, before joking that he was "used to it in Japan".

He said his products would overcome the effects of any sort of tension across the East China Sea. "If our brand and offering is truly beneficial, I am sure that there is a way to do that," he said.

Yanai, Japan's second-richest man, was in town for the debut of the company's secondary listing, aimed at raising its profile in the region. Fast Retailing's first day of trading on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange saw its shares soar as much as 31.5 per cent from their HK$27.36 offer price before falling back to HK$29 - up 5.99 per cent - when the market closed.

Yanai wants to achieve five trillion yen (HK$378 billion) in annual sales and become the biggest apparel retailer in the world by 2020. Fast Retailing is currently in fourth place behind Inditex, H&M and Gap, with sales of 1.143 trillion yen last year.

In order to reach the No1 spot, Fast Retailing will need to win over the American and Chinese markets. "Obviously we will need them both," Yanai said. "One alone is unthinkable if we aspire to become the biggest retailer in the world."

He declined to comment on rumours that the company was in talks to acquire American brand J. Crew for as much as US$5 billion. If true, it would join a portfolio of acquisitions including Helmut Lang, J Brand, Theory, and the group's younger label GU. "Even without acquisitions, I believe that we could be on our way to becoming No1 in the world," he said. "I am very positive about our organic growth capabilities."

The company expects the fastest growth from greater China and Southeast Asian markets and has said it wants to develop lower-priced GU, which opened its first outlet outside Japan in Shanghai in September, into the second mainstay of the group.

Yanai took notes from Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, the founder of local label Giordano, in the late 1980s and explored avenues to acquire Giordano in 2006. Now, as it celebrates its 30th anniversary, Fast Retailing is more than 14 times bigger than Giordano.