When entrepreneurship drives community building: Uwajimaya legacy

Guest blog post by Rita Brogan, CEO of PRR

Uwajimaya’s beginnings were humble, when in 1928 Fujimatsu Moriguchi started selling fishcakes in Tacoma, Washington. Today, Uwajimaya is the largest family-owned Asian grocery and gift company in the Pacific Northwest.

In 2011, Tomoko Moriguchi Matsuno, the youngest of Fujimatsu’s seven children, leads the family enterprise as Uwajimaya’s Chief Executive Officer. “I became an entrepreneur by inheritance,” says Tomoko. “I started my career as an artist.  An entrepreneur takes risks, and I will not take risks with my family’s business or Uwajimaya’s 400+ employees. My thought process may be risky, but then I weigh the consequences. I don’t think of myself as an entrepreneur.”

Rather, like many businesses in the Asian American community, the entire Moriguchi clan is an entrepreneurial family, working together to weigh decisions about investments and growth.  They take risks together, informed by experience and a commitment to each other.

Certainly, it is an entrepreneurial family vision that has guided Uwajimaya’s growth—a vision that is as much about cultural sustainability as it is about offering the highest quality and broadest variety of Asian foods in America.  It was vision, and a willingness to take risks, that inspired Fujimatsu Moriguchi to open the family’s first store at the corner of 4th and Main after they had been released from the Tule Lake Interment Center in 1945.  And certainly it was vision and a commitment to community 55 years later that led the Moriguchi family to invest and expand its flagship operations in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District into a mixed use development that with 66,000-square feet of commercial space and 176 apartment units on top.

Today, Uwajimaya has stores in Seattle, Bellevue, Renton and Beaverton, OR.  Tomoko was responsible for opening each of these stores.  She has learned the family business from the ground up, and assumed her position as CEO three years ago, in 2008, after her brother Tomio retired from that post.  Tomio steered Uwajimaya through its years of growth. Tomoko says she follows the “servant CEO” model, over a more typical American corporate approach of “strategic planning” led by a single charismatic leader. “These days it’s much more about operations  because you need to be able to fix things fast.”  Tomoko adds, “I believe in mutual accountability. It’s a more sustainable approach.”

Uwajimaya’s newest Bellevue store, opened in March of this year under Tomoko’s leadership, is exceeding revenue expectations, largely because of the growing demand on the Eastside for unique, quality pan-Asian food.

All of this has Tomoko thinking about the future.  She says, “It’s hard to explain that Uwajimaya is about more than just selling groceries.”  Tomoko thinks about the changing and evolving character of Asian/Pacific American communities and how Uwajimaya can help educate and sustain cultural identity.  She thinks about the growing “foodie” movement. She thinks about the evolution of “creative class” communities of highly educated and culturally vibrant neighborhoods. She thinks about the next generation of Moriguchi family members and their roles in taking Uwajimaya the next step.

The vision continues.

Rita Brogan is the CEO of PRR, a public affairs and communications firm based in Seattle, one of Washington’s 50 largest minority-owned businesses. Brogan was a recent recipient of the Foster School’s Business and Economic Development Center Asian/Pacific Islander Business Leadership Award. She writes the BEDC Brogan blog series monthly. Previously, she covered green economy issues with an emphasis on ways that businesses owned by people of color or women can create a competitive advantage. Her current blog topic focus is on innovation.

One thought on “When entrepreneurship drives community building: Uwajimaya legacy”

  1. Ms. Matsuno family story is great inspiration to not only Asian community, but all new American communities of multi-culture decent. I believe we all have potential to achieve success on our own unique ways. I am very excited to read this inspiration legacy of Matsuno family. Small business is the back bone of our community and we need more University like UW-Foster School of Business to involve their vision and provide knowledge base expertise they sometimes lack of.

    Asad Hassan
    Somali Community Activist

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