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Stringer yet to unite Sony factions

January 22, 2009

When a Welsh-born former TV journalist was appointed chairman and CEO of Sony Corp in 2005, he set out to destroy the factions dividing the electronics giant and uncover the synergies needed to grow.

Three and a half years later, Howard Stringer’s empire faces its biggest annual loss on record, slammed by a soaring yen, sliding demand, and restructuring costs.

What’s more, analysts say the maker of Bravia LCD TVs and PlayStation 3 game consoles remains as fractious as ever.

SONY/

Stringer, a dual U.S. and British citizen, was handpicked by his predecessor, Nobuyuki Idei, who was charmed by the Oxford-educated former screenwriter’s wit and vision of technology’s potential.

At his best when poking fun at himself, Stringer’s verbal sparring with Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month drew applause and laughs from the audience.

“Stringer can unite Sony,” Idei had said shortly after Stringer’s appointment to run a firm whose interests range from electronics to movie making and insurance.

Stringer’s command of movies, TV and other content would help balance company President Ryoji Chubachi’s love of technology, and help Sony — the inventor of the Trinitron TV and Walkman cassette player — focus its research and development on profitable businesses, he said.

But Stringer, who at CBS helped boost Dan Rather to the top of U.S. news ratings and lured comedian David Letterman from a rival television network, has so far failed to win the hearts of Sony’s engineers.

Instead, the gulf between them and the rest of the company has widened.

Sony

“Stringer has not presented a business plan that would convince the engineers to stand behind him,” said Yoshihisa Toyosaki, president of IT consultancy J-Star Global and a former Sony employee. “I don’t think it will happen now.”

Cost cutting, mainly in Sony’s ailing electronics operations, is instead fuelling resentment among electronics engineers, who have failed to come up with the hit products other companies have introduced in recent years.

“Sony’s product line isn’t diversified enough,” said Fujio Ando, senior managing director at Chibagin Asset Management, who compares the firm unfavourably with rival Sharp Corp with its solar cells and Panasonic Corp with its lithium batteries.

“That’s what’s frightening about high-tech companies. You need the technology and you need the patents, but most important you need your engineers motivated, if you want future growth,” Toyosaki said. “Once Sony falls behind in technology, that’s the end of its brand.”

Photo credit: Toru Hanai

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