He would “create new value,” Takeshi Niinami said, if he becomes the president of venerable family-run brewer Suntory Holdings Ltd. later this year.
Hours earlier, Nobutada Saji, president of the 115-year-old company, had announced his intention to hand over the role to Niinami in October, pending approval from the board next month. Niinami is currently the chairman of convenience store operator Lawson Inc.
It’s the first time Suntory has picked a leader from outside its founding family. Saji, 68, will remain as chairman, a post he also currently holds.
Saji raved about his 55-year-old successor, saying Niinami would be able to navigate the company through intense international competition as it tries to expand overseas.
The combination of Saji and Niinami has benefits for Suntory, the maker of Yamazaki whisky and Premium Malt’s beer.
Analysts say companies like Suntory, with a long record of family leadership, can relatively easily pursue a long-term business strategy.
Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii built the company’s first distillery in Yamazaki, Osaka Prefecture, in 1923. The company spent the next eight decades bringing its flagship single malt whisky to international attention. It took 45 years to make its brewery business profitable.
With Saji remaining chairman, the company is expected to maintain that strength.
Niinami’s star meanwhile has been rising. He was asked to serve on governmental panels discussing economic reforms, a feat he achieved while keeping Lawson profitable over the past decade. His involvement in Suntory’s management will offer a chance to test his own strategy on overseas business expansion.
A former employee of Japan’s biggest trading house, Mitsubishi Corp., Niinami received an MBA degree from Harvard Business School while with the company.
He has attended the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and is known for his a network of high-level contacts overseas.
His involvement in Suntory is not, however, a guarantee that the company will swiftly rise to prominence in the global race of mergers and acquisitions. He might face resistance from the founding family and be hindered in taking full, flexible control.
Niinami’s appointment comes as Suntory struggles with the memory of having failed in merger talks with domestic rival Kirin Holdings Co.
Indeed, some blame the failure of the talks in 2009 and 2010 on Suntory’s founding family, who insisted on retaining more than one-third of the voting rights at the new company. The merger would have created one of the world’s biggest beverage and brewing companies, on a par with Coca-Cola Co. of the United States and Belgium-headquartered Anheuser-Busch InBev NV.
“Suntory’s founding family only tried to keep it as a family business, ignoring the company’s chances of future success,” said a person familiar with the failed negotiations.
On Tuesday, Niinami expressed a desire to join forces with “all Suntory employees to create new value around the world.”
In any case, Suntory seems hardly out of the woods as far as its overseas business strategy is concerned.
After successfully buying Beam for around $16 billion, Saji spoke at a press conference in May about the difficulties he had found in overseas mergers and acquisitions.
“I was anxious about how much we should pay to pull off the purchase and I was afraid whether we could rapidly secure necessary funds,” he said.