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Smiles are free at McDonald's 3,600 fast-food outlets in Japan, as each menu brightly announces. Den Fujita, President of McDonald's (Japan), certainly has reason to beam. The fast-food chain he runs--a joint venture with its U.S. namesake--has 60% of Japan's burger market and annual sales of nearly $4 billion.
Fujita, 75, opened the first Japanese McDonald's 30 years ago in Tokyo's Ginza district. Thanks to his clever marketing, the chain is now one of the few companies feasting on the deflation now gripping the world's second-largest economy. To stay competitive, Fujita turned conventional wisdom on its head by halving weekday hamburger prices last year. Instead of eating into earnings, the move attracted a whole new clientele. On weekdays, McDonald's had been a teen hangout. Now, the typical lunch customer is a salaryman in suit and tie. Fujita is hoping to cash in on his new success in July, when McDonald's (Japan) becomes the first of the company's units outside the U.S. to undertake an initial public offering: It will list shares on Japan's over-the-counter market.
Fujita has been a bit of a maverick since he graduated from the University of Tokyo's prestigious law department in 1951. Unlike most classmates, he eschewed fast-track jobs in government or a top-ranked company, devoting himself instead to a small import business he set up while a student. He proved an adept marketer of foreign-made handbags and shoes, then parlayed that managerial moxie into a big bet on the burger franchise in 1971. Ten years later, McDonald's (Japan) was the largest-grossing restaurant chain in the country. That has made Fujita wealthy: Japanese tax authorities say he ranked 27th last year on the list of top 100 income earners in the country. But though there are now McDonald's all over Japan, Fujita is not satisfied: He plans to have 10,000 restaurants operating by 2010.
Fujita also has overseen the growth of the Japanese unit of U.S. toy franchise Toys `R' Us Inc., serving as vice-chairman of the venture. Last year, he joined the board of Softbank Corp. as an outside director. The author of eight books on business strategy, he isn't shy about offering advice. A favorite aphorism is "might makes right." Nor is he without vanity: His shirts have his name, Den, stitched around each cuff. He also has a dream of building a monument by which he will be remembered: a statue of Buddha in the Ginza district, just a stone's throw from his first McDonald's.