Hiroshi Taki, Uniqlo’s co-CEO for HK and co-COO for China, learned to listen on his way to the top
Hiroshi Taki skilfully rearranges a jumper on its hanger while waiting for the photographer to set up at the Uniqlo shop in Tsim Sha Tsui. Taki, 38, Uniqlo’s co-CEO for Hong Kong and co-COO for China, is among the youngest of the clothing company’s overseas executives. “Not many people were promoted in the same [way as me]. A lot of people advance their career stably,” he says. “I have to take care of those who are climbing step by step behind me. I have to remember to appreciate and cherish them.”
Such appreciation did not come naturally; his pride took a few knocks along the way. He started his career on the Uniqlo shop floor in Tokyo after graduating from Takushoku University in 1999 with a degree in business administration.
A year later, he was promoted to store manager, which he counts as the most difficult experience in his career. “I was only 23 and had 60 staff, who were all older than me. So I thought, ‘they must obey me’. I thought I was so very capable. This way of thinking was doomed to failure. I was slammed with many criticisms. My staff shut down all communication and my confidence plummeted.”
He had to break the ice, so he invited his staff to write down their opinions of him on a whiteboard. “They said I was terrifying and too strict. ‘We don’t know what you are thinking.’ They said I should communicate and explain more before I give them orders. It was such a heavy blow. I knew I was the problem and I was solely responsible for it. Therefore, I had to change.”
He apologised to his staff – something he is still doing, although he admits it is hard. “But even bosses make mistakes. So if you have staff telling you that you have done or said something wrong, it is definitely a blessing. It is very rare to have people telling you the truth.”
This experience shaped his leadership philosophy. “I absolutely disagree with brandishing superiority. I don’t want my staff to treat me like a CEO or their boss. It is wrong to just think about commanding others to do the work. I would rather they were self-motivated. In giving them freedom and a good environment in which to be creative and get on with their work, the results are always more positive.”
Taki might be a something of a wunderkind, but he did work for eight years as the sales manager of 10 stores until his big break came in 2008, when he was transferred to Hong Kong, then Taiwan to be the operations director. His career has since taken off, with 51 stores opening on the island since the first in Taipei in 2010.
“No one becomes a CEO on day one, and no matter how trivial your task is, [work to] achieve 100 per cent. Only by working that hard could you reach the apex.”
He says his insatiable desire to learn is one of the reasons for his success. “I can steal from everyone around me because I am empty inside, and everyone around me is talented.”
An avid reader who used to read a book a day, Taki says he can now only manage two or three books a week. “I wake up around six every morning and work till 7 or 8pm with back-to-back meetings. I also have to travel to Tokyo once or twice a month. I don’t think I’ve achieved a very good work-life balance. But you can’t just work without a life. You need to treasure your family and basically know what you are working hard for.”
He is especially passionate about mentoring younger generations. “Young people don’t have dreams anymore and are more short-sighted. They may be content with a comfortable life. It’s such a waste,” he says. “But I really like people who have dreams, because people who have dreams will most certainly be successful. No one – not your parents, boyfriend or girlfriend – can make the decision for you. You only live once, so you got to first think about what kind of life you want to live.”
Frequently flying prompts him to think about the meaning of life. “Sometimes I think, ‘What if there’s a plane crash?’ It just makes me realise I don’t want to have any regrets. Live each day as if it were the last, then, it will be natural to want to be kind and considerate to others.”
Taki has high hopes for his new role in China. “I really hope the business in China will succeed. We aim to reach the target of having 1,000 shops [in Greater China] with 1 trillion yen [HK$65 billion] in sales before 2020. We have around 400 stores in Greater China right now. So it means we will have to open 100 new stores every year until 2020.
“I want to help change people’s lives in China, and most importantly, to help others through our brand.”
Hiroshi Taki shares his leadership philosophy
Trust others “I know my ability and what I lack. Therefore, I need others to help me. This is teamwork and it is powerful.”
Seize the day “If you see each day as the last day of your life, being more considerate and kinder to others will come naturally.”
Be a dreamer “People who have a dream will most certainly be successful.”
Stay open “Be diversified and have multiple perspectives, because people are very different.”
Take criticism “It’s very rare to have people telling you the truth. So if you have staff telling you, ‘Oh boss, there’s something you’ve done or said wrong,’ it is definitely a blessing.”