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Denise Moriguchi aims to carry Uwajimaya brand forward

January 28, 2017

SEATTLE (AP) — Denise Moriguchi remembers many childhood hours spent at Uwajimaya, the Asian grocery-store chain her family owns.

Among her favorite memories: Gathering after hours with her large extended family at their store in Chinatown-International District to make mochi, a rice-cake dessert, before New Year every year.

For about three nights, from store closing till about 11 p.m., “in that old store, we would steam the rice, pound it, make the mochi, package them. Then it would be sold in the store,” she recalls.

Decades later, the 40-year-old Moriguchi is set to become Uwajimaya’s new chief executive and president.

Her ascension in February marks a transition to the third generation of leadership for the family-owned chain that’s become a community institution during its 89 years in business, reported The Seattle Times (http://bit.ly/2jqv1Ov).

Moriguchi, the first in her family to earn an MBA, will be taking over an enterprise that’s come a long way from its humble beginnings. Her grandfather, Fujimatsu Moriguchi, an immigrant from Japan, founded the company, selling fish cakes from the back of a truck in Tacoma.

These days, the company has four Pacific Northwest retail locations with a fifth — a smaller-format store called Kai Market in South Lake Union — scheduled to open this spring. It also encompasses a wholesale division, and real-estate holdings including Uwajimaya Village, which encompasses the Seattle retail store and parking complex, and The Publix, the apartment tower and retail space redeveloped from the old Publix Hotel.

Moriguchi says she wants to expand the company.

But before she does that, her first task as CEO will be to come up with a brand strategy and strategic plan to define the company for itself and for a city that’s changing rapidly, with big influxes of newcomers who may not know anything about Uwajimaya.

“How are we going to grow?” she asked. “Are we an Asian store? Or a quality seafoods, produce, meats store?”

The company has done very well under her father, Tomio Moriguchi, CEO from 1964 to 2007, and her aunt, Tomoko Moriguchi-Matsuno, CEO since 2007, who will step down on Feb. 24.

“They’re smart business people,” she said.

But Denise Moriguchi, who holds an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, says she wants to do “more visioning, forecasting, planning.” She’s just hired a brand strategy agency.

Uwajimaya will always serve the Asian market, she said. But her concern with branding the company as such is that “I don’t want people to think they can come here only if they’re making Asian food. You could be making grilled salmon with asparagus. And we have such good seafood, produce, meat.”

“I want to get everybody on the same page about what’s our company, what’s our vision,” she said.

Bagged groceries

Moriguchi wasn’t necessarily a shoo-in for the CEO position.

Growing up, she helped bag groceries at the store over the busy holidays. She also worked there for a year after graduating from college, doing different projects such as evaluating selling through Amazon.

But she stepped away from Uwajimaya for many years, working in brand management for Bayer HealthCare. She returned to Uwajimaya in 2013 after earning her MBA.

“I had to explore what else was out there to really know I wanted to be here,” she said of returning to the family company, where she became its marketing director.

Uwajimaya’s board had started its search for the next CEO a few years before, hiring an outside firm to assess potential candidates among the next generation of family candidates — about 37 people in all, including spouses.

Of the 37, about 17 said they wouldn’t mind being considered for the position. By the time Moriguchi returned to the company, she was one of four family candidates remaining.

She was eventually chosen for CEO in part for her educational background and because “she really thinks out far ahead and is careful about using her leadership role to empower others,” said James Warjone, chairman of Uwajimaya’s board.

“She’s someone who is very strategic in her thinking,” he added.

What’s more, “she’s highly regarded in her family,” said Warjone, the first outsider to serve as Uwajimaya chairman. “She’s someone who is a very good listener and is trusted by not only the family but also the employees.”

All those skills were important because, as head of a family-owned company, “you end up leading the family,” Warjone said. “It’s more than just running a company.”

Among the third generation of Moriguchis, including spouses, about 10 work at Uwajimaya, in roles including director of development and manager of the Bellevue store.

Generational changes

Meanwhile, the second generation of the family is stepping down.

Tomoko Moriguchi-Matsuno, 72, who retires as CEO on Feb. 24, has overseen the expansion of Uwajimaya and guided the company through the rocky waves of the recession.

“We were in very bad financial water during the recession. We overextended in some things,” she said. “I’m proud we had a team to get us out of it.”

Other than during the recession, the company has become more profitable each year, she said, with the last five years seeing the highest profits the company has ever made. (As a private company, Uwajimaya doesn’t disclose its profit figures.)

Sales last year were close to $120 million, she said, up from $78 million when she started as CEO.

Seeing a third generation come in will be a big shift. “But not as bad as the day my four brothers retired and said: ‘Here, this is your job,’” she said.

Her brother, Tomio Moriguchi, 80, recently announced that he had retired from Uwajimaya’s board as of Dec. 31, saying that his work was done now that the board had identified the next generation of leadership.

“I just feel it’s time to move on,” said Tomio Moriguchi, who is a pillar of the Asian-American community, including as owner/publisher of the North American Post, a Japanese and English-language weekly newspaper; and as a founder and past president of Keiro Northwest, which provides health and wellness services for Asian seniors.

“I’ve had a couple of experiences with high-level corporations where the old CEO stuck around,” he said. “I just felt that was so uncomfortable.”

Transitions can be difficult, Denise Moriguchi said.

“But I appreciate everything that my dad and my aunt, and my aunts and uncles and grandparents — I’m proud of everything they built and I feel very fortunate to be able to take over such a strong brand and a really good business,” she said. “I feel lucky to come in when they’ve done all the hard work of getting it off the ground and trust me to lead it going forward.”

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Information from: The Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.com

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