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A Growing Convenience: Ken Wakabayashi

The name 7-Eleven may be synonymous with on-the-go convenience around the world but there’s still enormous growth potential, especially in Europe, Latin America and Africa, says 7-Eleven International Co-CEO Ken Wakabayashi.

There’s no doubt that 7-Eleven is a global phenomenon. In 2022 alone, it opened more than 5,000 new stores globally – that’s more than 13 new stores every single day, or one store every two hours. But Co-CEO of 7-Eleven International Ken Wakabayashi says there’s still much more to do.

“The 7-Eleven brand is already big, but I still spot huge potential to grow, especially globally,” Wakabayashi, who is responsible for all 7‑Eleven operations outside North America and Japan, tells The CEO Magazine. “We are already big in Asia and North America, but we don’t have any stores in Latin America or Africa and only a small number of stores in Europe. So, big potential, lots of room to grow.”

From the Beginning

Wakabayashi joined 7-Eleven in Japan in 1994, straight after completing his studies in the United States.

“Japan has an excellent and very unique training program for their new employees,” he says. “Regardless of what degree you have – high school diploma, MBA or PhD – they will put you in the store for the first few years.”

Such a unique program allows a great understanding of what customers want and expect from their in-store experience. Since close to 100 percent of the company’s revenue comes from store transactions, it’s essential that everyone working for 7-Eleven, no matter their role, understands what the staff members working in-store need.

The educational program worked for Wakabayashi, who loved his early education.

“Working with 7-Eleven is a terrific opportunity to meet consumer snacking needs across international markets. Having a global retail leader like 7-Eleven as an innovation partner is a powerful collaboration between two great companies with iconic brands that benefit consumers.”– Mark Calhoun, Senior Managing Director, Hershey International


“Being in the store is the most efficient and effective way to understand the business,” he says. “So, I started as a sales associate and then I was a store manager for about a year. And then after that, I became a field consultant, who has responsibility for about eight stores in a particular market.”

After completing his time mastering the store experience, he moved to the corporate side of 7-Eleven, where he started in corporate planning. But having begun his career working in Japan, Wakabayashi was keen to return to the United States, and the national 7-Eleven headquarters in its original hometown of Dallas, Texas, beckoned. In 2004, he made the move to Dallas.

“I saw a big potential to grow the business in the North American market,” he says.

The first 15 years at 7-Eleven in the United States saw Wakabayashi work in operations support and corporate planning as Senior Vice President of Planning. In 2018, he became Head of International, overseeing a more than 43,000 stores operating in 15 countries. He was appointed Co-CEO, alongside Shinji Abe, in January 2022.

“It was great timing for Japan and the United States to create this company to accelerate our global expansion.”

Back then, 7-Eleven North America owned all the global trademarks except for Japan.

“Then, the Japanese and the American 7-Elevens started talking to combine those two departments to establish one entity. And that’s exactly what they did in 2022. So, 7-Eleven Japan and 7-Eleven North America established a new international company, and that is the company I’m working for today,” he says.

Wakabayashi explains that having dual CEOs reflects the 50–50 partnership between Japan and the United States, where he has enjoyed great success, something that he attributes to the mentorship of previous bosses.

“I really feel fortunate that I have had great bosses throughout my career at 7-Eleven. And particularly, I have learned a lot from Joe DePinto, currently CEO of 7-Eleven. And I am still learning a lot from him today.”

From when he joined, earnings have grown well over 10 times under the leadership of DePinto, he adds.

“So, I’m applying what I learned from him to run 7-Eleven International.”

Future Focus

Looking ahead, Wakabayashi sees 7-Eleven as having two major focus areas.

The first is continuing international market growth. As it stands, 7-Eleven has stores in 20 countries globally, but with Mexico as the only country in Latin America with a 7-Eleven presence, and with no stores in Africa and only very few in Europe, Wakabayashi wants to continue to take advantage of the opportunity in front of them.

“There’s so much room to grow,” he explains. “I’m always telling the team that the international growth opportunity in front of us is just unbelievable. It was great timing for Japan and the United States to create this company to accelerate our global expansion.”

The reason the company has a seemingly restricted presence in 20 countries comes down to its growth strategy.

“ITO EN was established in Japan in 1966 to create a sustainable society by providing customers with the flavors and value of green tea. 7-Eleven has been an excellent strategic partner and we look forward to our continued partnership for future growth.” – Yosuke J O Honjo, President and CEO, ITO EN (North America)


“Our store development strategy is called market concentration. That means, once we enter into one market, we will stick to that particular market to have as many stores as possible to increase the efficiency and the brand recognition so that we can have more customers,” he says. “That’s exactly why we have so many stores in big cities like here in Dallas or Tokyo.”

A nice, round number would be 100,000 by 2027, he continues.

“7-Eleven was born in 1927 here in Dallas. We will be celebrating our 100-year anniversary in 2027, three years from now. I’m thinking that it’ll be great to have 100,000 stores by then to celebrate the 100-year anniversary.”

Its second major focus area is on improving operations in existing markets.

“Quality is more important than quantity. Having about 85,000 stores globally is very nice, but our customers don’t care how many stores we have,” Wakabayashi acknowledges. “The reason why our customers shop at 7-Eleven is because they like one particular store which is close to their home or close to their office, not because we have 85,000 stores.”

“Number one is to clean the store for the customer, two is to be nice to the customer and the third is to stay in stock for the customers.”

In other words, while brand recognition has an impact on customer decision-making, convenience is more likely to sway them either way. If another convenience store is closer, they’re likely to visit that store instead. But that means negative experiences in-store are liable to spread quickly.

“If one customer has a bad experience at one store, then that can spread out globally today very quickly through social media, and then that can impact the entire brand negatively. So, making sure to have quality operations at every single store is so critical,” he says. “That’s why I believe it’s so much more important than having the number of stores we have.”

The recipe, he says, is quite simple with just three key pillars.

“Number one is to clean the store for the customer, two is to be nice to the customer and the third is to stay in stock for the customers,” Wakabayashi explains.

“Obviously, it’s easy for someone like me to say this, but it is not easy to execute those three things at each of our 85,000 stores, 24/7. But that’s why all employees working in several corporate offices need to understand what’s going on in the store – that way, we can provide all necessary support to the store to execute those three basics at every store.”

Product Differentiation

He also feels that getting these three basics right is what sets 7-Eleven apart from their many competitors, complemented by a bevy of new products.

“Once we have the foundation in place, then our differentiation comes from our product assortment,” he says. “Our focus is to develop and offer proprietary products like our own fresh food program, which can only be purchased at our stores.

“If we offer the same products that other retailers can easily offer, we cannot be differentiated. There will be less reasons for the consumers to come to our store to shop. So, fresh food and proprietary beverages, like Slurpees, are important.”

That’s why supplier relationships with key partners, such as The Hershey Company, ITO EN, Tyson Foods and Monster Energy, are so crucial to 7-Eleven’s success, he says.

“Once we have the foundation in place, then our differentiation comes from our product assortment.”

“We are not the food producers, so we need to work with somebody to develop and produce high-quality products. Without them, we wouldn’t have anything to sell,” he admits.

When it comes to the fresh food program, he adds that Japan sets the example of working with partners. “In Japan, our partners have been building exclusive fresh food commissaries throughout the company just for 7-Eleven, developing high-quality, tasty, healthy, fresh food products,” he says. “We’re building something similar in the United States right now.”

The fresh food program has proven a highly successful addition to its product assortment.

“If you want to have more customers, then you need to sell fresh food products – it’s a perfect correlation,” he says. “In that space, private brands are important. We can’t sell those without suppliers and partners.”

Success from Within

Though an old, well-established company, 7-Eleven International is a new entity in its own right. With so many existing stores and so many lofty ambitions, the success of such a new venture requires a strong company culture. Recognizing this, as Co-CEO, Wakabayashi made his new employees seven promises at their first town hall meeting.

“First was that I promised to do what’s right. I’m not perfect, but at least I always try to do the right thing,” he says. “Number two is to build trust. I promised to build trust with each of the team members, and then with all of the stakeholders. The third was to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Then the fourth one was to create or offer growth opportunities. We want to grow the company and that will automatically create a lot of opportunities for the employees.”

“Tyson Foods enjoys a mutually beneficial partnership with 7-Eleven International, offering delicious and nutritious protein products that fit 7-Eleven’s convenience, quality and value standards.” – G Martin Sutton, AD Global Retail, Tyson Foods


The fifth one, he continues, is to put the team first. “The sixth one is to get things done; making progress is good, I’ll take it. But making progress and getting things done are two different things. We are paid to get things to the finish line,” he says.

The last promise is to be transparent. “Communication is important to us because we work with so many different countries and in different time zones. So, getting alignment on everything we do among the team is so important. And then first thing you can do to get aligned with the team is to be transparent.”

With a global footprint, a commitment to quality and a thriving corporate culture, 7-Eleven sets the stage for a future where convenience meets excellence on a global scale. And with Wakabayashi at the helm, a profound understanding of customer needs, strategic international expansion and a relentless pursuit of operational excellence combine to create a beacon of innovation for the next generation of global businesses.

Digitally Driven

Another top priority at 7-Eleven International is innovation, Wakabayashi says. His current focus is the use of data to transform convenience, drawing upon the success of initiatives in the North American market to roll out across its global stores.

“We are a convenience store chain but we are also a digital company,” he explains.

Innovations being rolled out globally include its delivery platform, called 7NOW, and a 7REWARDS loyalty program.

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