Sony appoints foreigner, former CBS president, as new chief executive to lead turnaround

Monday, March 7th 2005, 8:55 am
By: News On 6

TOKYO (AP) _ Determined to break with its past, Sony Corp. tapped a foreigner as its chief executive Monday and vowed to turn around its lagging electronics sector by linking it with its entertainment businesses _ a goal that has long eluded the company.

A native of Wales who later acquired U.S. citizenship, Howard Stringer, 63, has helped make Sony's music and movie business one of the Japanese company's few bright spots in recent years. He replaces Nobuyuki Idei, 67, who has led the Tokyo-based company for a decade.

The shake-up comes amid growing concern about whether Tokyo-based Sony can revive its electronics operations in the face of cheaper competition from Asian rivals.

Foreign executives at major Japanese companies are still extremely rare. The one exception has been Brazilian-born Carlos Ghosn, chief executive at Nissan Motor Co., who has become a hero here by reviving the automaker from near-collapse to growth in the past several years.

Stringer, vice chairman at Sony and chief executive of Sony Corp. of America, was chosen as chairman and chief executive by the board, subject to shareholders' approval in June. He speaks no Japanese.

Sony said Stringer will continue to live in New York and travel between the United States and Japan. He took U.S. citizenship in 1985, becoming a dual British-American national, according to Sony.

Kunitake Ando said he was also stepping down as president to be replaced by Ryoji Chubachi, 57, an executive with experience in Sony's electronics and networking divisions.

At a news conference in Tokyo, Stringer brushed off questions about his ability to lead a Japanese company, which he joined in 1997 after years at CBS. He was president of CBS News from 1986 to 1988, and then president of CBS Broadcast Group from 1988 to 1995.

Stringer said he will work closely with Chubachi and Katsumi Ihara, chief financial officer. Both Chubachi and Ihara are Japanese and have years of experience in electronics.

Denying that Sony was in a ``crisis,'' Stringer said he will carry on the strategy set up by Idei and Ando of integrating electronics and entertainment. But he said he will accelerate decision-making and use younger talent.

``The brand of Sony is one of the 20th Century's greatest creations,'' Stringer said. ``I am well aware it is a Japanese creation. I am well aware it is an electronics company. I have every intention of maintaining those traditions.''

Koya Tabata, analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston Securities (Japan) in Tokyo, welcomed the move, saying that having a foreigner at the helm is a plus for a company like Sony, which makes much of its profits abroad and has a high portion of foreigners among its shareholders.

``It's fascinating as a symbolic change that Sony's leader will be a foreigner,'' Tabata said. ``Idei was good at drawing a picture for a strategy but he lacked the power to carry it out.''

Idei said the time was ripe to hand over leadership to a new team to ensure Sony continues to grow as a global company. He said he is proud of having helped oversee Sony's transformation toward a digital era.

``It feels a little sad,'' Idei told reporters. ``But I am happy I was able to help turn a page toward the next era.''

Idei, then a marketing expert, was a surprise choice as president in 1995, bypassing more than 10 contenders. He was hand-picked by Norio Ohga, who succeeded Sony founder Akio Morita.

Sony has struggled in recent years because of nose-diving prices of electronics products and has relied on hit movies to boost profits. Products that were once pillars of Sony's power, such as TVs and portable players, have declined in sales.

Cheaper electronics goods from Asian and other rivals have been a problem for Sony, which built its global brand over the past decades by offering trusted quality although at higher prices.

What was dubbed ``Sony shock'' happened two years ago, when Sony share prices dropped on worse than expected earnings results. Although Sony's profits have since improved, they have not made a dramatic revival.

Analysts say Sony missed the boat with portable music players by delaying a release of products to play MP3 music files, taking a beating from the iPod by Apple Computer Inc.

Stringer said Sony will stick with the plan to build new products around the next-generation computer chip called ``cell,'' which will power the next upgrade of the PlayStation video-game machine as well as other gadgets.

Stringer has overseen Sony's entertainment operations, including the recent acquisition of the consortium of U.S. film and television studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Movies ``Spider-Man'' and ``Spider-Man 2'' have been among the few exceptions to Sony's faltering performance.

Idei denied that having a non-Japanese lead Sony will be a problem. Sony is already a global company, he said, with only about a third of its workers and business being Japanese. Sony has joint ventures with companies in Sweden, Germany and South Korea, he said.