Monday, March 27, 2023

Two Passings Linked to My Past

In case you missed his obituary, one of the most successful retailers of his country, indeed of the world, Masatoshi Ito, died earlier this month. Ito founded Ito-Yokado, a Japanese conglomerate of retail formats including department stores and supermarkets but most prominently 7-Eleven stores in more than 80,000 locations worldwide. The company is now known as Seven & I Holdings (

I wouldn’t normally tax you with the passing of an international retail executive but in this case I have a personal stake in this story. 

Back in 1991, just as Ito-Yokado was embarking on its global convenience store quest, as editor of Chain Store Age I was invited to Japan to interview Ito and his top executives including Toshifumi Suzuki who had championed the company’s initial foray into the convenience store market and oversaw its expansion in Japan and beyond. The company had just bought majority control of Dallas-based Southland’s 7-Eleven convenience store chain. 

When I met Ito and Suzuki, their company had revenues of $13.9 billion. At Ito’s death, they were $74.5 billion. 

The interviews became the pretext for a family vacation for Gilda and our two kids, Dan, then 13, and Ellie, soon to be 10. It was a learning experience about Japan, with many lessons still applicable today.  

Take, for example, Japan’s anemic birthrate that had and continues to have major economic implications because of the resulting labor shortage. Our family’s twenty-something guide related how she and her contemporaries were in no rush to marry and have children. They sought professional careers. They did not want to become stay-at-home moms eating traditional fish and rice dinners while their husbands ate and drank Western fare in restaurants paid for with corporate credit cards, part of their expense accounts that commonly equalled their salaries. 

We observed another possible explanation for delaying marriage. Japanese men had four passions: sumo wrestling, playing pachinko (a vertical pinball game), reading comic books and drinking. 

Thirty years ago Japan had a full employment economy. That could be easily observed in any department store. Greeters bowed to shoppers at the top and bottom of every escalator and elevator ride. Each purchase would be handled by four clerks, one to take the product from the customer’s hand, a second to ring up the sale, process the payment and return any change, a third to wrap the merchandise, a fourth to hand the wrapped purchase to the customer and bow in appreciation. 

Women’s status was so stunted that even if the highest executive at a meeting was female she was still expected to serve tea to all the men. Men did not defer to women, or children, when entering an elevator. They would push Gilda, Dan and Ellie aside to scramble in first.

It was near impossible to lose one’s paycheck. Our sister publication, Chain Store Age Japan, was dissatisfied with one of its editors. He was not let go. Rather, he was reassigned to head up the circulation department despite no background in that field.  

Back then Tokyo was barely navigable to English-speaking visitors. Few signs were in anything but Japanese. Even more daunting was the hodgepodge street address system. Actually, there was no system. Numbers did not progress up or down in sequence. They were randomly placed: 25 could be next to 300; 4 next to 52. Perhaps it was a carryover from a wartime defense strategy meant to confuse any invader. I never found out why, but my admiration for the Japanese postal service remains admirable. 

“Bomb-y” Weather: Jim Mellen died in February. He was an original member of the Weathermen, a radical group of mostly young, left-leaning idealists in the 1960s-70s. The Weathermen were the progenitor of the Weather Underground, a more violent cult bent on disrupting society. Mellen did not belong to the Weather Underground, but as Mark Twain said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

This story begins on Saturday night, March 1, 1975. Gilda and I had just gone to bed in our Seymour, Conn., apartment when our pre-cell phone landline phone rang around 11:35 pm. My boss was calling, asking why I was going to sleep when half of nearby downtown Shelton, my reporter’s beat, was on the verge of being wiped off the face of the earth. Bombs had exploded inside the 475,000-sq.ft. Shelton Sponge Rubber Products Co. Plant 4 along the Housatonic River. It was, and possibly still is, the largest case of industrial arson in the United States.

I quickly dressed and drove the several miles to Shelton. Firemen and equipment, most from volunteer fire departments, converged on Canal Street from more than 20 neighboring towns. As the two-city-block-long factory burnt to a crisp shell, rumors started circulating. It was the work of radical Weathermen, it was said. 

Turned out the arsonists had kidnapped three plant employees and while tying them up safely in a woods in an adjoining town, one said they were part of the Weather Underground. It didn’t make sense. The plant was not vital to the Vietnam War effort. It made pillows and mattresses and other foam rubber products. But the reference to the Weathermen brought the FBI into the investigatory mix.

Within days authorities traced the suspects to a rented yellow Ryder van used to transport 500 pounds of dynamite and 24 55-gallon drums of gasoline into the factory. Among the 10 arrested were Charles D. Moeller, president of the company, and David D. Bubar, a Baptist minister and self-proclaimed psychic who counseled Moeller. 

The government alleged Moeller’s purchase of the plant from B.F. Goodrich the year before had financially strapped him. To relieve the burden, Moeller, under Bubar’s influence, had financed the arson, it was charged.

Moeller twice beat the rap, in federal and state court, though a civil trial found him responsible (much like the O.J. Simpson situation), thus absolving his insurance company from any requirement to pay $68 million in damages on the building and its contents. Bubar, on the other hand, was found guilty of second degree arson. He served six and one-half years of a 20-year sentence. Seven other defendants also served time. The tenth was acquitted.

As spectacular as the fire was, the real tragedy of that night 48 years ago was the impact it had on the lives of the plant’s workers (estimates ranged from 900 to 3,000) and their families. The business never came back. The site was turned into a waterfront park. Once a thriving manufacturing city, Shelton has become a sought-after bedroom community north of Bridgeport and northwest of New Haven.