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30 April 2011

In Memoriam: Norio Ohga

Tag(s): In Memoriam, People

Last weekend Norio Ohga, former Chairman and Chief Executive of the Sony Corporation died at the age of 81. After the founders of Sony, Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita, he was probably the person who had the most influence on the Sony business and shaped it into the multimedia conglomerate it is today.

His first ambition was to be an opera singer and as a student of music at Tokyo’s National University of Fine Arts and Music he wrote a highly critical letter to Sony about its early tape recorders which he wanted to use in the pursuit of his studies. Their response was to invite him in to help with development as a consultant and he continued to do this for the next few years only interrupted by a spell in Berlin studying under the great conductor, Herbert Von Karajan. Van Karajan was to continue as his mentor for the rest of his life and Mr Ohga was present at his death bed in Anif, near Salzburg in 1989.

After returning from Germany as a graduate of the Berlin University of the Arts Ohga-san accompanied Akio Morita on a sales trip to America by the end of which he had agreed to join the company full time as head of tape recorders and design. From then on his ascent was meteoric. In 1961 he became head of Sony’s’ design centre from which position he influenced every product that was launched. In 1972 he was promoted to corporate managing director and in 1976 deputy president. By now he was working on the launch of Compact Disc which combined Philips optical laser technology with Sony’s digital technology to create a new recording medium from which a substantial portion of Sony’s profits would be earned over the next decades. Sony owned many of the key patents, produced the machines on which the CDs were made as well as commanding the leading share of the consumer devices on which they were played back. Sony launched its first Compact Disc player in 1982, a month after Ohga became president.

Because of his love of music Ohga –san was also the natural choice to head up Sony’s joint venture with CBS records to exploit the CBS catalogue in Japan. Later with this experience behind him he acquired the whole of CBS records which was renamed Sony Music. Later with a masterstroke he set up a joint venture between the Sony Corporation and Sony Music, even though Sony Music was fully owned by Sony, to enter the computer games market with PlayStation. This business model ensured that the unique culture of the games writer was understood within the business and it did not become just another box-moving business with dwindling margins.

Perhaps less successful was the move into movies with the acquisition of Columbia Pictures in 1989 for $3.4 billion. Much of this had to be written off together with vast fees paid to Hollywood insiders to manage the alien culture of Hollywood in which in the words of the screenwriter William Goldman “Nobody knows anything.”  Synergy between Sony’s core electronics business and its movies proved elusive despite herculean efforts to find it but Sony has persevered with the vision and can say that it has reached huge scale in a combination of hardware and software applications. It is always a force to be reckoned with even if the ascendancy seems to be with US players like Apple and Google today.

 I first met Mr Ohga in 1988 shortly after joining Sony to run its consumer business in the UK. He was by then President and Chief Executive and the meeting was understandably brief. He told me in slightly uncertain English, “Never forget we are a Japanese company”. At the time I did not find this particularly motivating coming as it did shortly after Mr Morita had coined the expression “Think Global, Act Local” which has found currency in many multinationals as they seek to exploit the trends of globalisation. However, I later realised that Mr Ohga motivated us all in much more profound ways than a few words. As Head of the Design Centre he challenged all the researchers and designers and engineers and product planners to produce the great line up of outstanding and attractive products. These in turn motivated us in the field to seek to match the same quality in design and performance in our own sales and marketing activities. Our advertising had to be as creative as the genius of the products themselves.

Later as Managing Director of Sony United Kingdom it was my privilege to host the Sony European Management Conference at Gleneagles. Over lunch Mr Ohga told me that this was his second visit to Scotland, his first had been as a young man to follow in the footsteps of Felix Mendelssohn and see Fingle’s Cave in the Hebrides which had inspired the Hebrides Overture. I told him what I knew of Mendelssohn’s travels which I’m sure was a fraction of what he knew but he paid me the compliment of saying that he had rarely met a gentleman (his word) who knew so much of classical music. His love of classical music was peerless and even while running Sony he found time to conduct major orchestras in concerts organised by the company. I still have a recording of one of these from 1992 when he conducted a programme of Johan Strauss II that bears comparison with any of the New Year's Day Concerts from Vienna. He said: "Just as a conductor must work to bring out the best in the members of his orchestra, a company president must draw on the talents of the people in his organisation."

At the conference I hosted a function at Stirling castle. I have no Scottish connections but to enter into the spirit of the occasion I had a kilt made in the MacPherson tartan, a particularly attractive design and my wife had a sash made in the same cloth. We wore this to greet our visitors to "our castle”, and later performed the ceremony of the haggis before demonstrating some Scottish dancing. Mr Ohga, a keen photographer, was very entertained by these diversions.  At the same event he presented me with the Excellent Management Award for the previous year’s business.

I received some very nice letters from Mr Ohga. One came in 1995 when I was elected to the UK Hall of Fame in the ITV Awards for Marketing. Not just recognising the Award he went as far as to say “I look forward to your on-going guidance and support.” By now I fully recognised his powers of motivation if he could look to me for guidance.  And when I finally listened to the seductive blandishments of the head-hunter and decided to move on to build a career with British companies he wrote to tell me of his regret. “We will certainly miss you.” He wrote, “At the same time I would like to thank you for your valuable efforts and contribution to Sony. “

When he retired Sony certainly missed him and now he is gone we will all miss him. He is survived by his wife, Midori, who was a concert pianist in her own right. My wife and I enjoyed their visit to London some years ago and enjoyed a very pleasant dinner together with a few Sony colleagues. Our thoughts are with her.


Copyright David C Pearson 2011 All rights reserved

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