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Rice cooker maker Zojirushi fights overseas fund's board pick

Dueling proposals to face off at shareholders meeting next month

Taiwanese tourists browse Zojirushi rice cookers at an electronics store in Osaka. (Photo by Atsushi Ohoka)

OSAKA -- Japanese cooking appliance maker Zojirushi said Tuesday that it opposes a candidate for director nominated by its top shareholder, an overseas investment fund.

Ace Frontier, which holds 13.5% of Zojirushi together with other investors, has proposed former Bank of Japan official Satoshi Nagano as a board member.

Zojirushi's move sets up a clash of proposals at the company's annual general meeting next month, when the appliance maker aims to win shareholder approval to establish an oversight board composed of a majority of outside directors.

In nominating Nagano, Ace Frontier cited a need for a global perspective on the board. The fund also pointed to Zojirushi's return on equity of 6.5% for the year ended November 2018 -- below average for Tokyo-listed manufacturers -- as evidence that shareholder interests are not being met.

Zojirushi, for its part, said in Tuesday's statement that its own slate of candidates has "high oversight abilities." The company also said that its board nominee Shingo Torii, vice chairman of Japanese beverage group Suntory Holdings, would bring a global perspective.

Founded in 1918 as a maker of vacuum flasks, Zojirushi is still headed by a member of the founding Ichikawa family, which has significant ownership of the Osaka-based company.

Zojirushi shares hit a three-and-a-half-year high Dec. 26, the day after the company forecast its first operating profit growth in four years for the 12 months ending November 2020. Earnings had slumped after a boom in appliance shopping by Asian tourists in Japan turned to a bust.

The company had been slow to make headway into online sales in China, but President Norio Ichikawa said: "We believe earnings at our Chinese operations aren't getting any worse."

Chinese appliance maker Galanz Group's Japanese arm is a co-investor in Zojirushi along with Ace Frontier.

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