Can new Sony CEO make the company hip again?

Kenichiro Yoshida was the driving force behind Sony's turnaround during the last five years when he was in charge of finance.
Kenichiro Yoshida was the driving force behind Sony's turnaround during the last five years when he was in charge of finance.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (Bloomberg) - When it comes to crunching numbers or winding down bad businesses, nobody at Sony has been as sharp as Mr Kenichiro Yoshida.

Now, as chief executive officer, he faces a tougher task: rekindling some lost magic.

The 58-year-old was the driving force behind Sony's turnaround during the last five years when he was in charge of finance. Investors love him, but managers who worked with him said they worry he is not in love with the kind of gadgets that once made Sony a household name.

Sony is making record profits again but it is no longer making the world's coolest stuff. The company that rolled out the Walkman and the Trinitron colour TV has become a less-inspiring hodgepodge that includes an insurance provider and a semiconductor maker, along with Playstation game consoles and movies.

Once ranked the No.1 brand by American consumers, Sony needs new hits to keep from falling further behind Apple and Samsung.

"Yoshida is essentially tasked with taking an older company and trying to make it young again," said Mr Damian Thong, a Tokyo-based analyst at Macquarie Group.

"There's a tension between his desire to maintain steady profits and taking the risks necessary to drive innovation. Balancing those two will be a challenge."

The board is making a bet he will be able to shift "from being an enforcer to an all-around strategist", said Elena L. Botelho, co-author of The CEO Next Door, a 2018 book on leadership.

Among the challenges: Mr Yoshida will have to figure out how much investment is needed to keep Sony's lead in image sensors. In the music business, where an important contract is expiring in June, he will have to make a quick decision on whether to pay an estimated US$2 billion (S$2.6 billion) for full ownership of an ageing but still profitable song catalogue, or let it go.

Then there is the movie business, Columbia Pictures, where a string of flops and a constant churn of top executives has kept the studio far behind Walt Disney.

Harder still will be plotting a strategy for what to do after Playstation 5. The machine, expected to be released next year, will probably be the last standalone game console Sony ever makes, so Mr Yoshida will eventually have to take a risk on something new.

Perhaps even further outside of his comfort zone will be trying to solve a problem that has troubled Sony's top brass for years: getting the creative juices flowing again at a company where the best hits have been the result of serendipity, not calculation.