Ken Wakabayashi ’94 was appointed co-CEO of 7-Eleven International LLC in January 2022.
But before the Yokohama, Japan native joined the world’s largest convenience retailer, he got his start in business at a small public liberal arts college in Alabama called the University of Montevallo.
Wakabayashi’s father worked for an exporting company and traveled to many U.S. cities. Watching his dad travel, he dreamed of one day traveling to the U.S. as well.
While in high school, Wakabayashi met a graduate of UM. That meeting set his sights on the American university and cemented in his mind that he would one day be a Falcon.
“I didn’t consider any other institutions,” Wakabayashi said. “When I met that person who went to UM, I was a freshman in high school. That person talked about Montevallo being a small college town, how the people there were friendly, that there weren’t many Japanese students so I could learn to speak English very quickly, and other things, I thought that would be the place that I want to study.”
“After that, I was determined to come here. I didn’t even apply to any Japanese universities.”
“I knew I was home the very first time I walked on this beautiful campus,” he said. “We don’t have these types of campuses in Japan. It was so beautiful with brick roads, a lot of green and trees. I immediately thought ‘I belong here.’”
He resided in Napier Hall and chose business administration and general business as his majors, which is how he said he acquired the skills he still uses today as co-CEO of 7-Eleven International.
But it wasn’t just business skills and acumen he learned at UM. A lot of life lessons came from his matriculation.
“What I learned from Montevallo is being different is good,” he said. “I’m saying that because I was born and raised in Japan where we did not have much diversity back then.
“But when I came to Montevallo, in the classroom there were several international students, different ethnicities, different cultures. Then I started thinking that being different is a good thing. That is totally true in the business world.”
Wakabayashi said there are so many convenience stores in the world. It is important that 7-Eleven offers a variety of unique products, services and experiences to stand out among other convenience stores. There must be differentiation to succeed.
“That’s the winning formula in this industry. That’s what I learned from Montevallo.”
Another business lesson he credits to Montevallo is the “formula to achieve,” which he said is setting a target, understanding how much gap there is between you and achieving that goal, developing a plan to fill the gap, then executing it. If the goal isn’t reached, go back to the planning stage and adjust.
“That’s the cycle I used for exams at Montevallo and that’s exactly what I’m doing right now in my business,” he said. “One last thing I learned at UM is the importance of doing the right thing. Integrity is what matters.”
“I was taking a finance class toward the end of my studies. I learned from Dr. (Dallas R.) Blevins that if a company tries to force you to do the wrong thing you need to quit the company. …That was a huge message for me. As a student, I thought I would do whatever the company tells me to do, but if that’s not the right thing to do I need to say no.”
Wakabayashi said that lesson helped him time after time. And it also helped him develop his personal business philosophy of “doing what’s right for the customers, society and local community.”
Upon graduating from UM in May 1994, Wakabayashi went back to Japan and found a job at 7-Eleven Japan. His first role was in store operations and then he moved up to corporate planning following that.
After four years in corporate planning, working a total of 10 years for 7-Eleven Japan, he worked for 7-Eleven Inc. in the U.S. before being named co-CEO of 7-Eleven International in January 2022, a joint venture between 7-Eleven Japan and 7-Eleven Inc.
7-Eleven International master franchises and/or licenses more than 46,000 stores in 14 countries and regions, excluding Japan, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
Wakabayashi is a UM donor who said it was time to start giving back.
“Montevallo has given me a lot. I really think that, without Montevallo, I couldn’t be in this position. That’s exactly why I wanted to start giving some back.”
Wakabayashi lives in Coppell, Texas, with his wife Harumi and their daughter Koharu.
He said if he could give some advice to current UM students it would be to study hard, read lots of books, believe in yourself, don’t worry about the future, focus on the issues of today and remember that mistakes are a part of the process to success.