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Electronics

Sony chief decides to leave on a high note

'Kaz' Hirai is not the type to feel wedded to his job, a confidant says

Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai holds an Aibo robotic dog at the CES consumer electronics show in the U.S. city of Las Vegas on Jan. 8.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- After finally delivering the upbeat earnings that had eluded him early on, Sony CEO Kazuo "Kaz" Hirai is bowing out in a surprise move that those who know him say is not out of character for the free-spirited boss.

Sony said Friday that Chief Financial Officer Kenichiro Yoshida -- the no-nonsense money man who reversed a string of losses -- will succeed him April 1.

The change comes as the Japanese electronics and entertainment group prepares to embark on a new medium-term business plan. Net profit is seen hitting an all-time high in the year ending March 31. And Sony is starting to regain some of its mojo in consumer gadgets, with products like the revived Aibo robotic dog. People at the company say Hirai seemed eager to make the new plan a success.

The American-raised, casual-dress-loving chief executive may be looking forward to an early retirement, although at 57 he is a year younger than his chosen successor. A man who takes his many pastimes seriously, including weekend drives in a convertible, Hirai is not the type to be wedded to his job, according to a close confidant.

"I think he felt a sense of accomplishment" taking the stage here Friday, this source said. "I think he also feels that he has sacrificed his personal life during his time as president."

"It's a very Kaz-like way to go," the confidant commented.

Hirai has endured his share of bumps along the way since taking over from Howard Stringer in 2012. Earnings refused to turn around in the early days. Critics pointed to a lack of results from a seemingly endless restructuring and questioned whether Hirai really understood the company.

Kenichiro Yoshida, Sony's finance chief, is known for a no-nonsense approach to investor relations.

Yoshida, whom Hirai picked as CFO in 2013, proved the architect of recovery. Long steeped in the company's books, Yoshida takes dialogue with investors seriously. His furrowed brow is as famous among business journalists as his tough line on spending is at Sony.

In meetings of Sony's investment review committee, Yoshida "is always the last to agree" to an acquisition, according to a senior executive at a group company. Even for deals costing tens of millions of dollars -- relatively small sums by Sony standards -- Yoshida insists on a thorough cost-benefit analysis, this person said.

One of the few times Yoshida loosened up at an earnings conference was last May, when he partly credited the strength of Sony's camera business to Hirai being a "camera freak." But his serious face was back on for the rest of the news conference. "What Sony needs now more than ever is the sense that things could go wrong," he intoned.

The bankerlike Yoshida comes across as the polar opposite of Hirai, with his jeans and glib English. Given Sony's high international profile in the entertainment industry, playfulness is an important quality in its chief executive, as is being a sort of icon. If Sony is to truly find greatness again, Yoshida will need to rise to this challenge and learn to play offense as well as defense.

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