Asia-Pacific News

Hitachi CEO is CNBC's Asia Business Leader of 2015

Chairman and CEO of Japan's high-tech giant Hitachi, Hiroaki Nakanishi, speaks about the company's business strategy in Tokyo on May 14, 2015.
Yoshikazu Tsuno | AFP | Getty Images

Two of Japan's most successful businessmen took home the top honors at CNBC's Asia Business Leaders Awards this year.

Hiroaki Nakanishi, the chief executive of Hitachi, was named the region's Business Leader of the Year while Tadashi Yanai, founder and president of Fast Retailing, was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at a ceremony in Bangkok on Thursday.

The two companies are household names in the world's third-largest economy. Hitachi manufactures a range of goods from consumer electronics to chemicals while Fast Retailing is the parent company of popular clothing brand Uniqlo.

Both are also at the forefront of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's deflation-beating economic policies, known as Abenomics.

Last year, Hitachi announced it would be moving closer to a merit-pay system by basing salaries of managers on job performance instead of seniority, omnipresent in Japan's employment system.

Not only does the move directly addresses Abe's call for companies to increase wages above the government's 2 percent inflation goal, economists lauded the decision as a long-awaited structural change that could revitalize Japan's traditional labor market.

Fast Retailing meanwhile, is soon expected to debut a new system that allows Uniqlo employees to take three days off a week, according to local media reports. The new initiative allows for workers to spend more time on child-rearing and nursing care, which is especially attractive for working mothers, as Abe aims to promote more women in the workplace.

Nakanishi’s big turnaround

No one knows Hitachi better than Hiroaki Nakanishi. He joined the Japanese electronics giant in 1970 as an engineer, working his way up the ladder, before becoming President in 2010.

"Personally, I love system engineering or how to re-organize coordination of the various facilities or services…that is one of the many things [about] Hitachi. You can utilize the big field and you can [also] utilize big money to make something that is a big stage for you," he told CNBC.

For Nakanishi, that big task was to revive the conglomerate's fortunes after a loss of $8 billion in 2009, a record for a Japanese manufacturer. But its turnaround was also one of the greatest for Japan Inc. This week, the firm revised its first-half net income forecast to 97 billion yen ($801 million) from 70 billion yen previously. For the year to March next year, Hitachi estimates it will post a 310 billion yen net profit.

Today, Hitachi continues to reinvent itself, with social innovation as a critical part of its future vision. Nakanishi doesn't just want to innovate but to produce products and solutions aimed at solving social trends such as energy conservation and health care.

Yanai’s expanding empire

Tadashi Yanai, Chairman, President and CEO of 'Fast Retailing' attends the 'Shochiku Kabuki X Uniqlo' collection launch at Uniqlo store on March 19, 2015 in Paris, France.
Marc Piasecki | Getty Images

Over the course of Tadashi Yanai's 44-year career, Uniqlo's flagship stores have stretched from Tokyo's Ginza district to New York's Fifth Avenue. But he's not stopping there. Yanai has big ambitions for Asia's biggest clothing retailer,hoping to transform it to a global leader with $42 billion in sales by 2020.

"From now on it will no longer be the age of chain stores. Each store will have its own reason, necessity to be at that particular location…An individual store will have the best stock of products under the best condition, and the store will engage in the business rooted in that particular location," he told CNBC.

Read More Uniqlo Offers Four-Day Work Week to Lure, Retain Talent

Since his small beginnings from working in his parent's clothing store, Yanai is now Japan's richest person with a net worth of $19.7 billion, according to Forbes.

And in his case, success doesn't always mean listening to the advice of those closest to you.

"My father was always against opening new stores because it meant you have that much more risk. But it turned out to be a success. Because we opened newstores, we were able to expand globally….it has really become a good era."