Keidanren hands torch to unique chief after first pick declines

Kyodo

Unlike his predecessors as head of Keidanren, Toray Industries Inc. Chairman Sadayuki Sakakibara doesn’t belong to the business lobby’s current leadership group of more than a dozen vice chairmen or chief of its Board of Councilors.

The 70-year-old Sakakibara, who will take over as leader of Keidanren in June, has been away from the organization for nearly three years after serving as a vice chairman from 2007 to 2011.

Hiromasa Yonekura, 76, the current Keidanren chairman and the chairman of Sumitomo Chemical Co., made his intention known early in the process that he wanted his successor to have a manufacturing background.

Hitachi Ltd. Chairman Takashi Kawamura was reportedly Yonekura’s first choice, sounding him out in August. Kawamura was widely credited for achieving a turnaround at reeling Hitachi.

Yonekura was apparently mindful that Hitachi, which along with making consumer electronics has a hand in numerous infrastructure-related sectors, plays a key role in the economy as a major employer and business partner for many small businesses. Yonekura may have viewed his background as ideal for the head of an organization that speaks out for businesses.

Kawamura, however, was adamant in declining the offer, citing his age — he’s 74 — and his plan to step down as Hitachi chairman this year. The two reportedly held a meeting again in late October, when Kawamura is believed to have again refused the offer.

Masahiro Sakane, senior advisor at Komatsu Ltd., and Hideaki Omiya, chairman of the board at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., were also cited as potential candidates.

Sakane was removed from the shortlist because he was no longer either president or chairman at his company, while Omiya was considered “too close” to the government because his company, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, is the leading player in Japan’s defense equipment industry, which largely caters to government contractors.

Kawamura, Sakane and Omiya are all among the 18 vice chairmen at Keidanren.

The stalled selection process reportedly alarmed former Keidanren chairmen, including Takashi Imai, honorary chairman of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp., Hiroshi Okuda, senior adviser at Toyota Motor Corp., and Fujio Mitarai, chairman of Canon Inc.

They “tried to change Kawamura’s mind to make him agree on becoming the next chairman,” a source familiar with business community affairs said.

It was then that Sakakibara, who had served as vice chairman for both Mitarai and Yonekura, emerged as a candidate.

He is known for making carbon fiber, used in aircraft fuselages, as Toray’s mainstay business and is also acquainted with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a private-sector member of the Industrial Competitiveness Council.

This personal link was seen by some business leaders as an asset at it could help repair Keidanren’s ties with the government after a period when relations were soured by Yonekura’s remarks openly questioning Abe’s bold monetary policy.

Yonekura, even though he heads the country’s most influential business group, is not serving on any major government councils, including the Industrial Competitiveness Council.

Mitarai, who appointed Sakakibara as Keidanren vice chairman in 2007, also threw his support behind the Toray chairman as new leader.

There was concern that some leadership members may take issue with Toray’s annual revenues of about ¥1.6 trillion, lower than those of companies that have produced Keidanren chairmen in the past.

However, Toyota Motor Corp. Honorary Chairman Shoichiro Toyoda, who served as Keidanren chief in the mid-1990s and is the most senior of the former chairmen, is said to have agreed Jan. 7 with appointing Sakakibara after Yonekura briefed him.

Other former chairmen also agreed on Sakakibara on condition that he is supported fully by Keidanren’s secretariat.

Keidanren was established in 1946, the year after the war ended, to represent the interests of major businesses by offering views and policy proposals to the government and other relevant entities.

Its leader is often called the “prime minister” of the business community. Its current membership comprises around 1,300 businesses.

Sakakibara is slated to be inaugurated as leader at a general assembly meeting in June.