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Business

Meet Sony's next CEO, Kenichiro Yoshida

After years of restructuring, Kazuo Hirai is giving control to his right-hand man

Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai, left, and Kenichiro Yoshida, the company's chief financial officer, speak to reporters in Tokyo on Feb. 2. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO A Sony executive long seen as a prime candidate for the top job is finally getting his shot.

The electronics maker on Feb. 2 announced it will appoint Chief Financial Officer Kenichiro Yoshida as its next chief executive. Yoshida, 58, who has been doubling as executive deputy president, is to assume his new position on April 1. Current CEO Kazuo Hirai, 57, will become a chairman, while the CFO position will be filled by current Chief Strategy Officer Hiroki Totoki, 53.

The leadership change comes as Sony transitions from a restructuring phase into a full-on growth drive. Hirai replaced Howard Stringer as CEO in 2012, after four straight years of net losses. For the fiscal year through March, the company is projecting a record operating profit.

"I am happy that I can pass the baton to Yoshida as we are about to end the fiscal year with a better-than-expected performance," Hirai told reporters. "I had to make some tough decisions during my time, but the biggest moment of joy was when people told me that lively, energetic Sony is back."

While Hirai is known for his outspokenness and love for the camera, Yoshida is soft-spoken and known for his self-effacing personality.

"The global market environment has changed drastically since 1997, when earnings were last at a high," Yoshida said. "Back then, companies with the largest market capitalization in the world were mainly in resources. Today, they are all tech players. We still have a lot of work to do."

Yoshida has been Hirai's right-hand man and a crucial tactician along the way. He joined Sony in 1983 and worked mainly in the finance department. He moved to a subsidiary, internet provider So-net, in 2000, rising to president and representative director in 2005. He spearheaded the company's public listing.

Yoshida is also credited with leading Sony's strategic investments, including its acquisition of a stake in Japanese internet company DeNA.

He is often described as cool and a pragmatic decision-maker. Armed with ample experience in the venture capital game, he has been on the CEO shortlist for years.

In 2008, then-CEO Stringer attended a party organized by So-net and spoke with a Nikkei reporter. Stringer said Yoshida, who was leading So-net at the time, would make an ideal future boss for Sony.

But as Sony slumped, Yoshida was perceived as a holdover from the old regime. From 1998 to 2000, he had been the general manager of the CEO strategy office under Stringer's predecessor, Nobuyuki Idei. After Stringer took control, a number of executives and managers who had worked under Idei left. Yoshida, perceived as an Idei ally, was kept at arm's length despite his track record.

That changed in 2013, when Hirai called on him to help revitalize the company.

Earlier, Hirai had broached the subject of discontinuing Vaio, Sony's ailing PC brand. Other executives wanted to keep the brand alive, but Yoshida disagreed when Hirai spoke with him in private.

"The PC market has changed drastically with the emergence of tablets and other products," Yoshida advised. "We should exit the business."

Hirai brought Yoshida back from So-net to serve as Sony's chief strategy officer in 2013. The following February, Hirai made the call to sell Sony's PC operations.

Yoshida was also behind a move to cut 5,000 jobs and run the TV business as a separate entity. After he became CFO in April 2014, he continued to be the brain behind the curtain for Hirai, who oversaw structural changes and shifted Sony's focus from competing on high-end electronics to selling larger volumes of more affordable products, including TVs and smartphones.

Today, Sony is the world's top supplier of semiconductor image sensors. This business generates healthy earnings, as does the game segment, which includes the popular PlayStation 4 console.

In the new Yoshida era, Sony is expected to continue on the path Hirai forged over the last six years. Yoshida has been working closely with Totoki on growth strategies, including a new medium-term plan to be executed starting this year.

Nikkei Asian Review homepage editor Nobuyuki Okada contributed to this report.

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