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Former Sony Chairman Nobuyuki Idei

Decade of Struggle, Decade Chasing Dreams


Decade of Struggle, Decade Chasing Dreams

Source:Ming-Tang Huang

The man who led Japan's biggest brand into the new millennium at the helm of Sony is a most un-Japanese executive. Guided by the inner rebel he kept bottled up all those years, Nobuyuki Idei seeks to lead Asia into a new era of innovation.



Decade of Struggle, Decade Chasing Dreams

By Hsiao-Wen Wang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 437 )

Through success and failure, former Sony chairman and group CEO, and founder of Quantum Leaps, Nobuyuki Idei, is a heavyweight of Asian technological innovation.

In an exclusive interview with CommonWealth, Idei remarked, "The PC, mobile phone and TV, the three most important electronics (products) of the last century, are now old machines." It's hard to imagine these words coming from Idei, the very same man who lifted Sony's computer division up from its boot straps, conceived the alliance between Sony and Ericsson that took it into the mobile phone market, and put his stamp of authority on the joint investment with Samsung to go after the LCD TV market.

Idei stepped aside from his positions as Sony's chairman and CEO four years ago to found Quantum Leaps a year later, jointly investing US$350 million with Daiwa Securities to found Daiwa Quantum Capital, an Asia-based firm investing largely in Internet technology.

Idei also got Sony to spin 20 engineers off to form an open, independent laboratory available to conduct research for any organization or enterprise in hopes of becoming the vanguard of "open innovation" for Asia.

Idei's robust laugh is disarming in contrast to his neatly coiffed head of gray hair and serious demeanor. The most distinctive aspect of his life is that he followed paths he did not want to take up until his retirement from Sony.

Heaven and Hell over A Decade in Charge

At the turn of the millennium, Idei, at Sony's helm for a decade, had been in paradise.

Idei took Sony into the black after three years in charge, raising revenues from four trillion to nearly seven trillion yen over the course of his decade atop the company. He also oversaw Sony's transition from analog audio/visual technology into the digital Information Age over this period.

While the rest of Japan's economy was plagued by the burst of the bubble, hitting corporations hard, Sony was the last man standing. Both the Western and Japanese media rushed to place the crown of "greatest CEO" on his head in response.

Nevertheless, Idei also plummeted to the greatest depths as CEO.

Just after the new millennium Sony's forward progress came to a halt, and in 2004 the company suffered a loss. By 2005 Sony's net profits had dropped down to just 1.5 percent. The Economist took the company to task for its apparent reluctance to embrace the mp3 format in order to protect Sony Music's holdings. This fear of Internet piracy subsequently led the company to surrender the portable music market to Apple's iPod. Adding insult to injury, BusinessWeek magazine named Idei one of the world's worst CEOs of 2003.

When Idei left Sony, Fortune magazine gave him the following scorecard: A for Vision, B- for Execution, and A- for Strategic Alliances.

Transforming Sony Over a Decade of Struggle

Wrestling with the leviathan corporation for a decade, Idei was struck with digital inspiration. Yet his life was like a succession of about-faces amidst constant contradiction.

Idei had always played the bashful second fiddle since his youth, both literally and figuratively. In the elementary school band he played second violin. On the baseball field, he was also the team's second-best pitcher. In his parents' eyes, he was a quiet, sensitive boy who liked to curl up in the corner with a book.

Yet at the age of 58, Idei was picked by Sony's third chairman, Norio Oga, as successor to lead Japan's most famous corporate brand. Oga felt his successor should have the capacity to make Sony keep shining, like the sun. Upon hearing Oga say, "You are my successor," Idei recalls being so shocked he just wanted to flee from Oga's office. The meeting lasted all of 15 minutes.

Surprised to be selected over 16 other senior executives, he took charge of a company strapped with debt: despite revenues of US$38 billion, the acquisition of Columbia Pictures left Sony twenty billions in the red. Idei likened the massive cash flow crisis of the time to going from a placid lake to a torrential waterfall.

Most "Un-Japanese" Industry Captain

Despite being the chairman that led Japan's most valuable brand into the twenty-first century, Idei was also the country's most un-Japanese corporate leader.

Idei was capable of discussing cooperative plans with Intel chief Andy Grove and keeping Bill Gates company on the golf course using fluent English. Six years representing the company in Europe helped him develop a fondness for Italian suits and red wine, and learn to speak elegant French.

In spite of his personal support for Hollywood, he stood in firm opposition all along to Sony's irrational acquisition of Columbia Pictures.

When he and Sony founder Akio Morita viewed the popular film Pretty Woman together, both were impressed by the corporate mergers depicted in the film that were uncommon in Japan at the time. He and Morita, 16 years his elder, later excitedly dashed off to Yurakucho to view a preview screening of the Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro film Awakenings. When the curtain went down they remained in their seats, heads in hands, bawling their eyes out together.

An avid golfer who plays around three times a month and is known to design his own clubs, Idei also enjoys attending rock concerts with his granddaughter. "Dancing at a rock ‘n roll concert? No problem!" exclaims the 72 year-old as he makes dance motions with his body.

Quantum Leaps: Next Decade's Dream

If Idei's tenure as chairman of the Sony empire was like a ride on the public bus, having to accommodate and consult with others at all times, his stint in Europe as a young executive was like a taxi ride that let him choose what route he wanted to take to his destination. Today, Idei describes his current state as "like riding a bicycle."

The decade-long battle at Sony now over, perhaps the next decade of chasing dreams offers him the ease, freedom, and sense of space of riding a bike.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman