Den Fujita, founder of the McDonald’s chain in Japan, is stepping down as chairman and chief executive officer after the company suffered its first loss in almost three decades, McDonald’s Holdings Co. (Japan) said Wednesday.

Fujita, who turns 77 next week, cited his age and health as reasons for his resignation after more than 30 years at the helm, Yasuyuki Yagi, president of McDonald’s Co. Japan, told a news conference.

Fujita and his eldest son, Gen, will resign from the board following a regular shareholders’ meeting slated for March 28.

The announcement comes less than a month after the chain reported its first net loss in 29 years. Yagi denied any link between the chain’s dismal performance and Fujita’s departure.

Fujita started the joint venture with the world’s largest fast-food chain in 1971, turning it into Japan’s largest restaurant chain. Today, it boasts 3,900 outlets.

Beyond its success story, McDonald’s has changed the dietary habits and cultural landscape of Japan. Its popularity has even brought on a barrage of criticism against junk food.

“He still does store-rounds everyday, even on weekends,” Yagi said of Fujita. “But he figured he couldn’t carry on like this forever, so he decided to pass the torch to the younger generation.”

Fujita was not present at the news conference.

Yagi said Fujita told the board of his intention to resign at a meeting earlier in the day.

Fujita ,born in Osaka, began his entrepreneurial career by launching trading house Fujita & Co. while he was studying law at the University of Tokyo. He opened Japan’s first McDonald’s outlet in the tony Ginza district of Tokyo in July 1971, introducing exotic American fast food amid a period of rapid economic growth.

Described by his subordinates as a perfectionist, Fujita is said to have maintained a strong influence over the chain’s operation even after he relinquished the presidency to Yagi and became chairman and CEO in March 2002.

The founder is still likely to be heard when he speaks: Fujita remains the firm’s largest shareholder after McDonald’s Corp. of the U.S., with a combined family stake of 26 percent.

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