Akio Morita: Guru of Gadgets

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KENICHI OHMAEAlmost exactly five years ago, Akio Morita--Mr. Sony--fell to the ground during a game of tennis. The co-founder and chairman of the board had suffered a stroke. He has since been in a wheelchair. This is particularly sad, as Morita had never been able to sit still and relax. At 72, he was playing tennis at 7 a.m. each Tuesday. I know this well because I would practice on the court next to him. My tennis, however, was very different from his. I played with an instructor, and if I was tired, I would just take a break. Not him. He challenged everybody, including young athletes.This was in keeping with a man who created one of the first global corporations. He saw long before his contemporaries that a shrinking world could present enormous opportunities for a company that could think beyond its own borders, both physically and psychologically. And he pursued that strategy with his relentless brand of energy in every market, particularly the U.S. It is notable that this year, according to a Harris survey, Sony is rated the No. 1 brand name by American consumers, ahead of Coca-Cola and General Electric.The best way to describe Morita's extraordinary drive is to scan his schedule for the two-month period immediately preceding his stroke. He took trips from his home base in Tokyo to New Jersey, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Dallas, Britain, Barcelona and Paris. During that time he met with Queen Elizabeth II, General Electric chief Jack Welch, future French President Jacques Chirac, Isaac Stern and many other politicians, bureaucrats and business associates. He attended two concerts and a movie; took four trips within Japan; appeared at eight receptions; played nine rounds of golf; was guest of honor at a wedding ceremony; and went to work as usual for 17 days at Sony headquarters. Morita's schedule had been decided on more than a year in advance. Whenever there was a small opening, Morita would immediately and strategically fill it by arranging a meeting with someone he wanted to become acquainted with or catch up with. Unlike so many executives who remove themselves from the rest of the corporate pyramid, he was always in the middle of the action.Morita had been groomed since the third grade to become the successor of a 14-generation family business: a prominent sake-brewing company in Nagoya. In true entrepreneurial spirit, however, he traded this life of comfort and privilege for the uncertainties of a start-up, called Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering, Inc., in the rubble of postwar Japan.From the outset, Morita's marketing concept was brand-name identification and brand responsibility: that the name would instantly communicate high product quality. This is a marketing concept widely used by companies today. But at that time most companies in Japan were producing under somebody else's brand name. Pentax, for example, was making products for Honeywell, Ricoh for Savin and Sanyo for Sears.PAGE 1||
Complementing Morita's unusual focus on brand identity were the talents of his co-founder, Masaru Ibuka, the engineering and product-design force behind Sony's inventions. The combination worked well. The two sought to provide the best available technology and quality to the consumer. One of Sony's first products was a transistor radio, produced in 1955. While the transistor was developed by Bell Labs and produced by Western Electric, it was Sony that first used it for a small pocket radio, in 1957, creating a new market in the bargain.The radio's success led to more firsts in transistorized products, such as an 8-in. television and a videotape recorder. Sony's technological achievements in product design, production and marketing helped change the image of MADE IN JAPAN from a notion of cheap imitations to one associated with superior quality. In Morita's own words, they made Sony the Cadillac of electronics.The creation of the name Sony highlights Morita's intuition and determination to communicate globally. He wanted a name recognizable everywhere: creative, Roman letters, short and catchy. Morita and Ibuka pored over dictionaries and found the word sonus, which in Latin means sound. In addition, the word sonny was part of the pop vernacular in America at the time, and they thought it suggested a company made up of young people with abundant energy. The combination of the two formed Sony.Sony's globalization began in the U.S., where Morita moved his entire family in 1963. In that way he would understand Americans, their market, customs and regulations, thereby increasing the chance of his company's success. It was a brilliant decision. Not many businessmen in those days possessed such a passionate and determined business vision. In the U.S., Morita settled into a large Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan. He built a solid and valuable network by continually socializing and giving parties during the week, a habit he maintained throughout his career.Morita was a workaholic, but he was also a playaholic. He followed art and music, and was a sports fanatic. In his 60s he took up wind surfing and scuba diving and started skiing to ensure good exercise through the winter. He loved to water-ski and even crafted a water-resistant microphone on a handle, connected by a wire on the ski rope to a speaker on the boat so he could relay instructions to his wife Yoshiko. He was so proud of this invention. To simply have a good time, he would invent and perfect such a product.The Walkman is just such an invention. Morita watched as his children and their friends played music from morning until night. He noticed people listening to music in their cars and carrying large stereos to the beach and the park. Sony's engineering department was generally opposed to the concept of a tape player without a recording function (it would be added later), but Morita would not be denied. He insisted on a product that sounded like a high-quality car stereo yet was portable and allowed the user to listen while doing something else--thus the name Walkman.|2|
Sony America considered that bad English and changed it to Soundabout for the U.S., Freestyle for Sweden and Stowaway for Britain. Morita was leery of using a different name for each country, and when sales were less than rewarding, he changed the name universally to Sony Walkman. Subsequently, the Walkman was a worldwide hit that is now featured in major dictionaries.The man who put Sony on the global radar had a nationalist side that was both contradictory and complementary. This you can sense in reading his best seller, Made in Japan, as well as in talking to him. When I would complain about the ambivalence, he'd grin and say, Ohmae-san, it is the generation gap. A navy veteran, he returned from service to a Japanese economy that had been destroyed by the war, so for a long time he maintained a Japan-first frame of mind. His initial intentions were simply to make a contribution toward rebuilding his country from the ashes of the war.But he eventually adopted a more international point of view and, in the 1960s, began to speak of issues, such as encouraging free trade by reducing tariffs and other barriers, that many Japanese businessmen had been reluctant to discuss for decades. He represented, very vocally, the business community of Japan, a country that had during the 1970s become the No. 2 economy in the world and could no longer be ignored by the major economic players. Some controversy resulted when he was listed as co-author of a book in 1989--The Japan That Can Say No--that suggested that other countries stop complaining about Japanese imports and get to work improving their own corporations. His real opinions were somewhat misrepresented by the publisher: he had intended the consensus-oriented Japanese to see that in other countries disagreement and debate were not insulting and that Japanese could argue with their business partners abroad without destroying their friendship.But as Sony grew internationally, Morita expanded his vision. Now it was Think globally, act locally--that is, have a common value system that transcends national objectives; serve international customers, shareholders and employees, regardless of the origin of the company. I liked his reference to the phrase in a business context so much that I used it in my book The Borderless World to describe a company that is in the final stage of globalization.In 1993, Morita was asked by Gaishi Hiraiwa, then chairman of Keidanren, to be his successor. Keidanren is the most prestigious business association in Japan, and all CEOs in Japan would like to hold an important position in the organization. Until this time, Morita had never really been accepted by the Japanese establishment as Sony was a relatively small company and didn't come from the traditional strong houses of steelmaking, public utilities and heavy industry. In the Japanese economic circle, becoming chairman of Keidanren is likened to the succession of the Emperor. As it turned out, the day of Morita's stroke, Nov. 30, 1993, was the day the succession announcement was to have taken place.This would have been a wonderful thing for Japan in 1993, a time when the country was about to collapse into sustained recession. Morita had already been thinking about reforming Japan, and he organized discussion groups of politicians, business people and bureaucrats to talk about what would be needed. People say that Japan's current economic situation might have been very different if someone like Morita had been in a position to speak on behalf of the entrepreneurs and the dynamics of business--as opposed to begging the government to rescue industry after industry. I also believe this is the case. The great tragedy is that Japan does not have another like him.Morita achieved more than most could imagine in one lifetime. If he had been able to read the paper reporting Sony as the No. 1 consumer brand in the U.S., he would have smiled from his beachside mansion in Oahu and said, Of course! I told you so! After all, Sony was made in the U.S.A.!Kenichi Ohmae, author of The Borderless World, is a management consultant and founder of a satellite-TV business channel||3