Sony chairman critical after brain hemorrhage

December 03, 1993|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- In yet another blow to Japan's beleaguered business world, the country's most famous industrialist, Sony Corp. Chairman Akio Morita, remains in critical condition after emergency surgery for a cerebral hemorrhage.

Sony officials said the operation was a success, but Mr. Morita, 72, remains in intensive care, unable to speak.

Mr. Morita fell ill while playing tennis with company employees Tuesday, but the news was masked for 48 hours -- a move that would be extremely controversial in America given Mr. Morita's material role in the operation of a major public company. Disclosure was made only when the results of the surgery became evident, the company said.

The announcement of Mr. Morita's illness was front-page news in Japan yesterday. He, along with his greatest competitor, Konosuke Matsushita, the recently deceased head of the Matsushita electric companies, broke the mold of anonymity typical of Japanese executives, becoming almost as well known for their thoughts as the extraordinary success of their companies.

Sony's stock on the New York Stock Exchange closed yesterday at $45.125, up 12.5 cents.

The predecessor company to Sony was established by Mr. Morita and a friend in 1946 amid the devastated wreckage of post-war Tokyo. Soon, it became an integral part of what came to be called "the Japanese miracle," a stream of inexpensive, sophisticated products, usually electronic and based on the newly invented transistor.

In 1988 and 1989, just as Mr. Morita's operating tenure was ending, Sony purchased CBS Records and Columbia Pictures with the idea of linking Sony's traditional strength in electronics -- hardware -- with what the hardware was used to play. The acquisitions, controversial at the time for nationalistic reasons in America, continue to be questioned in business terms.

Sony's net income declined in 1993 to about $330 million from about $1.1 billion in 1992. Like most Japanese firms, it has recently endured difficult times as the combination of a slow domestic economy, lack of novel new products, and high yen undermined business. In the past four weeks, Mr. Morita has been emphasizing a back-to-basics approach, focused on manufactured products, the company said.

Mr. Morita stepped down from daily management of Sony four years ago, but the company's executive deputy vice president, Tsunao Hashimoto, said Mr. Morita continues to be the "psychological backbone" of the company.

Certainly he remains a key link between Japan and the numerous other countries where Sony and Japanese manufacturers have a presence. Sony was the first Japanese corporation to list shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

Much of Mr. Morita's time and efforts were expended in the United States, where he won respect while at the same time harshly criticizing U.S. business practices.

It had been widely expected that Mr. Morita would soon become chairman of Keidanren (the Japanese Federation of Economic Organizations), a powerful trade organization with no U.S. equivalent of which he has long been vice chairman.

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