Business / Corporate

7-Eleven's new boss bides time on turnaround as stock falls

by Grace Huang

Bloomberg

After his appointment in May, the president of 7-Eleven’s floundering parent company promised to deliver a turnaround plan in about 100 days. Ryuichi Isaka is on day 112 and counting.

Since Isaka took over on May 26, shares of Seven & I Holdings Co. have fallen 7 percent, widening their decline so far this year through Wednesday to 21 percent.

The retail conglomerate has lost more than $10 billion in market value as domestic consumers become more frugal and international competition intensifies.

Seven & I will announce a strategic growth plan on Oct. 6, the same day it releases second-quarter earnings, said Yuki Toda, a Tokyo-based spokesman.

Isaka has already vowed to expand the number of 7-Eleven stores in the U.S., diversify their menus and restructure a money-losing supermarket unit.

Seven & I plans to close almost two dozen stores under the Ito-Yokado and Sogo & Seibu names by February after the parent’s sales and operating profit declined in the first quarter.

“By being late on the first promise, Isaka might risk being seen as a weak leader,” said Howard Yu, who teaches at the International Institute for Management Development based in Lausanne, Switzerland. “For a CEO, not only colleagues but the investor community are forming opinions based on limited information, and those opinions are long-lasting.”

Isaka, 58, may not be too worried since he has the backing of activist investor Dan Loeb. With the billionaire’s support, Isaka survived an ouster attempt in April by his former boss, Toshifumi Suzuki, who resigned thereafter.

Loeb, founder of New York-based Third Point LLC, praised the former head of the 7-Eleven unit as “instrumental to the success” of the convenience stores, the majority of which are in Japan. The 19,044 domestic outlets are grappling with Japan’s shrinking population, declining numbers of smokers and inroads by primary competitors FamilyMart and Lawson.

A representative for Third Point and Loeb declined to comment on Isaka not having issued his plan yet.

That domestic investors have not raised a ruckus about Isaka’s deadline may be a sign of reticence among Japanese shareholders, who tend to avoid direct criticizing of corporate leaders, in contrast with those in the United States and Europe.

“Japanese investors are weak in activism,” said Takeyuki Ishida, head of Japan research at proxy adviser Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. “Only a fraction of shareholders are actively involved with the company management.”

Operating profit is expected to increase by 5 percent, and sales are expected to show a 2 percent increase, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

To maintain that momentum, Isaka will need to deliver on his promise to boost 7-Eleven’s business in the U.S., where there are almost 8,400 stores. That amounts to a 6 percent market share, and Isaka said in May he plans to add burritos and Mediterranean pasta to the fast-food menu as he tries to boost average daily sales by 10 percent.

“That could be a nice frontier for the company if things go well,” said Naoki Fujiwara, chief fund manager at Tokyo-based Shinkin Asset Management Co.

Third Point previously called for Seven & I to restructure Ito-Yokado and divest retailers Sogo & Seibu, Barney’s Japan and Nissen Holdings Co.

One move Isaka did make was to acquire and delist debt-laden Nissen, the mail-order catalog unit that has lost money since 2013 amid the shift to online shopping through Amazon.com Inc.’s Japan website and Rakuten Inc.

“There are quite a few things to take care of,” said Kei Okamura, assistant investment manager at Aberdeen Investment Management in Tokyo.

“The most important part here is that the domestic business becomes a profitable entity with long-term, sustainable growth.”