Idei takes Sony reigns

Nobuyuki Idei may not leap tall buildings in a single bound, but to some people, he seemed super-powered in March when, in an unexpected move, he was named to head Sony Corp.

When Idei, 57, was tapped to succeed Norio Ohga as Sony’s prexy, the move stunned Sony insiders and the entire industry.

“It just wasn’t expected,” said a former American colleague of Idei’s who declined to be named. “He certainly had visibility and was known to be close to Ohga, but some of us expected a very different approach.”

Sony’s failure over the past few years to come up with a hit product and its desire to lead the digital age had many in Japan speculating that an engineer would be chosen to replace Ohga.

Even Idei, whose background is in marketing and public relations, admits to having been “speechless” when he was selected over no fewer than 14 more senior executives.

“Ohga chose him mainly because he can talk with all those Hollywood people comfortably. And with Sony moving more and more toward becoming an entertainment company rather than an electronics company, that’s key,” said Masami Fujino, an electronics industry analyst for Swiss Bank in Tokyo.

In that sense, Idei may be a throwback to Sony founder Akio Morita, who delighted in hobnobbing with the likes of Leonard Bernstein. But Idei’s tenure as Sony chief is going to be no Hollywood party. With the company facing financial and technical turmoil, Idei has the weight of the consumer electronics world on his shoulders.

Not completely. Ohga will stay as chairman to help run things.

The task facing Idei and Ohga will be to steer Sony through tough waters in an industry in which the line between hardware and software has blurred.

The company’s troubles were underlined in a big way in November, when it wrote off $3.2 billion from its Hollywood studio operations, a galling public admission that it had overpaid for Columbia Pictures in 1989. Of greater concern are the strong yen and competition from lowcost Asian rivals.

Sony’s recent push to set the standard for the digital video-disc (DVD) relies heavily on support it can drum up from Hollywood and personal computer makers. So far, however, a rival camp led by Time Warner and Japan’s Toshiba and Matsushita appear to have the early lead in Hollywood.

Before being named president, Idei was managing director in charge of Sony’s brand image and corporate communications.

At almost every crucial technology juncture in recent years, Idei has been a key player.

Analysts say it was Idei’s ease in handling the firm’s marketing, advertising and public relations and his eagerness to jump into new fields that catapulted him over his senior colleagues.

Idei is usually soft-spoken, but those who know him say he can speak harshly when necessary.

Idei, who declined to be interviewed for this article, speaks English and French, and spent nine years in Europe, where he played a key role in setting up Sony’s French unit.

Idei says his first priority is fixing the financial problems in Sony’s Hollywood operation, which already has undergone a major overhaul. Earlier this year, he hinted that the company might consider selling a stake in its entertainment operations, possibly to a cable television, satellite or telecommunications concern.

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