Newfound enthusiasm for Sony Corp., seen in a surging share price, owes much to Chief Executive Officer Kazuo Hirai’s November 2013 decision to elevate someone from the Internet services unit to push through painful changes.
Four months later, Kenichiro Yoshida went from relative obscurity to become the CEO’s right-hand man and chief financial officer. The 55-year-old has used the mandate to cut jobs, sell off Sony’s iconic Vaio personal computer business, spin out its television set unit and rein in the company’s destructive market share ambitions in smartphones.
“He started the most important thing that Japanese companies cannot do — exit,” said Atul Goyal, a Singapore-based analyst at Jefferies Group LLC whose “buy” rating has delivered an 85 percent return to investors in the past year. “If you remove Yoshida, this stock is no longer a ‘buy.’ It’s probably a ‘sell.’ “
Yoshida’s focus on restructuring, including the $1.5 billion writedown of its smartphone business, has cut costs and stemmed losses in consumer electronics. That has helped restore credibility with investors for a company that has lowered earnings outlooks 15 times in the past seven years.
Sony shares have surged 13 percent in the past two days and closed at ¥3,138.5 in Tokyo on Friday, the highest since May 2010, after it reversed its forecast for a full-year operating loss. Hirai is shifting away from consumer electronics by focusing on image sensors, gaming and media content to rebuild earnings growth.
The stock has surged 25 percent this year, with the benchmark Topix index little changed, even as Sony deals with the fallout of a crippling computer hack on its Hollywood studio.
Sony Pictures Entertainment said on Thursday that Amy Pascal, whose emailed jokes about U.S. President Barack Obama became public in the cyberattack, will step down in May as cochairman and as head of its motion picture group.
Yoshida, who likened restructuring to emergency surgery, plans to transform Sony into a company capable of generating a ¥400 billion ($3.4 billion) profit. He also wants more accountability.
“Our reforms spared no sacred cows, whether at the main company or its units, and now you’re beginning to see the results,” Yoshida said Wednesday in Tokyo after announcing the company’s most profitable quarter in seven years. “We have an accountability to the outside world, something that we still need to work on, but the idea is beginning to sink in.”
Yoshida, a 30-year Sony veteran, spent much of his career outside the company’s core electronics operations, including stints in the United States, the finance division and investor relations. From 2000 to 2013, he mostly worked for So-net, rising to the head of the unit in 2005 and taking it public.
When he was tapped to rejoin the head office as chief strategy officer and deputy CFO in December 2013, Sony praised Yoshida’s successes in developing the network, communications and media businesses.
Since being promoted, he has tried to get Sony to break from its past, when it would hang onto businesses even after market share and earnings slumped. The TV unit has lost more than ¥700 billion during the past decade.
Yoshida wasn’t available to comment Thursday, said George Boyd, a Tokyo-based spokesman.
Yoshida sees last year’s sale of the Vaio unit as a turning point, with the company exiting a business that was getting squeezed by other PC makers and the rise of tablet computers.
“Withdrawing from the PC business was a major event that led to a change in mindset at Sony,” Yoshida said Wednesday.
He also departed from some of the practices considered normal in Japan’s staid corporate culture.
Just a month after becoming CFO, Yoshida criticized predecessors for failing to change Sony as the electronics industry changed. He also began giving forecasts for specific sales and profit targets at individual segments, making businesses that span games, movies, music and devices accountable to investors as well as management. When it became clear the mobile phone unit was missing targets, Hirai replaced its head with Hiroki Totoki, Yoshida’s lieutenant since the So-net days.
“Yoshida gives an impression of a person who can execute,” said Kazuyuki Terao, Tokyo-based chief investment officer of Allianz Global Investors Japan Co. “He doesn’t just talk, but gets things done, and the numbers begin to show that.”
The smartphone writedown was an overdue move to recognize that earlier ambitions needed to be brought back to reality as Sony models struggled to compete with those from Samsung Electronics Co. and Apple Inc.
The company once targeted becoming the biggest supplier of smartphones based on Google Inc.’s Android software. It’s not even in the top five. Now it is cutting models destined for China, eliminating 2,100 jobs and narrowing its focus to markets where it can grow.
“Yoshida has shown the understanding of what needs to be done, as well as the ability and willingness, but the question has been does he actually have the power,” Goyal said. “The answer came with the very painful writedown in the mobile phones business. He does have the power to change.”
With an operating profit predicted for this year and the company expecting ¥400 billion in earnings next year, some analysts expect Sony may finally be turning the corner to growth. Of the 24 analysts tracked by Bloomberg, 16 recommend buying the stock and only two suggest sell.
Junya Ayada, an analyst at Daiwa Securities Group Inc., expects Sony to set a target for record operating profit of ¥550 billion to ¥600 billion in fiscal 2017 when it unveils its medium-term business plan on Feb. 18. His “buy” rating is tied for first in the Bloomberg Absolute Return Rank, which grades analyst calls that lead to the best gains for investors.
“Prospects are taking shape for a Sony revival, and we now think attention should shift forward to the company’s growth potential,” Ayada said in Wednesday’s report.
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