• Masatoshi Ito transformed the U.S.-born company into a global empire
  • The first 7-Eleven store in Japan was opened in 1974
  • 7-Eleven now has around 83,000 stores worldwide

Masatoshi Ito, the Japanese billionaire who turned the U.S.-born 7-Eleven convenience stores into a global empire, has died at the age of 98.

Ito was the honorary chairman of Seven & i Holdings, the operator of 7-Eleven, at the time of his death. The company operates in 19 countries with around thousands of stores raking in an annual revenue of almost $80 billion.

The businessman died Friday from old age.

"We would like to express our deepest gratitude for your kindness and friendship during his life and respectfully inform you of his passing," the company said in a statement Monday, CNN reported.

The businessman had a net worth of $4.5 billion at the time of his death, according to Forbes. His legacy includes transforming 7-Eleven into a global giant, which now has around 83,000 stores worldwide. A fourth of those stores are located in Japan.

Ito's business journey began in 1958 with his takeover of a small Tokyo apparel store run by his relatives. After renaming the business Ito Yokado, he transformed the store into a chain where customers can get everything from groceries to clothes under one roof.

In the 1960s, Ito traveled to the U.S. and "experienced a kind of cultural shock at how rich everybody seemed" when compared to the Japanese, who were still burdened by World War II's aftermath.

"I became particularly conscious of the sheer size of America's consumer society and the distribution techniques that made it all possible," he said in a previous interview. "It then occurred to me that people in different cultures still have basically the same desires, assuming that they are at the same of development, and I thought that Japan's distribution system would become more like America's as the Japanese consumer society grew bigger."

Ito Yokado struck a deal with 7-Eleven's owner, Southland Corporation, and went on to open the first 7-Eleven in Japan in 1974.

By 1991, Ito's firm had a controlling stake in Southland Corporation. He resigned as president of Ito Yokado the following year after three company executives were accused of making illegal payments to racketeers.

Ito Yokado was renamed in 2005 as Seven & i Holdings with the "i" added as a tribute to the Japanese billionaire. Ito remained the company's honorary chairman till his death.

"I am frequently asked if I succeeded because of hard work or because I was just lucky. Actually, the answer is some of both," Ito said in the same interview. "I was fortunate to have started out in business right after the war - the same time that a broad-based consumer society was beginning to develop in Japan."

Pictured is a 7-Eleven sign on July 18, 2002 in Pembroke Pines, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images