Business / Corporate

Founder of Hello Kitty creator Sanrio steps down after 60-year stint

Kyodo, Bloomberg

Shintaro Tsuji, the 92-year-old founder of Hello Kitty owner Sanrio Co., will step down as president, marking the first change of leadership in its 60-year history.

He will cede the post on July 1 to his 31-year-old grandson Tomokuni Tsuji, a senior managing director, and become chairman, a company source said Friday. He will have the right to represent the Tokyo-based company, which conceived the world-famous feline character in 1974.

The change comes as Sanrio battles the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the temporary closure of its Hello Kitty-themed parks in Japan.

A former prefectural government official in Yamanashi, Tsuji founded Sanrio in 1960. His grandson joined in 2014 and became senior managing director in June 2017.

Family-based successions are still common at Japanese corporations, most notably at Toyota Motor Corp., where CEO Akio Toyoda is the grandson of the automaker’s founder. The younger Tsuji’s father, Kunihiko Tsuji, had been heir apparent until his sudden death in November 2013.

That succession crisis has left a lot of work for Sanrio’s new CEO to do. The company on Friday posted net income of just ¥191 million for the year ended March, 95 percent lower than the year earlier and less than 10 percent of its forecast. The company cited the impact of the coronavirus, which forced it to close stores and its theme park, as well as ongoing struggles to fuel growth in Europe, the U.S. and Asia.

In recent years, the company has found some success with the Netflix Inc. show “Aggretsuko,” and it has also announced plans to team up with New Line Cinema and Warner Brothers for an English-language Hello Kitty movie. But Sanrio’s revenue has dropped for six successive years, and the stock trades at less than a third the high reached in 2013. The company on Friday also scrapped a midterm target it set in 2018.

Tsuji is a year younger than Snow Peak Inc.’s Lisa Yamai, who at 32 was the youngest CEO of a Topix-listed company. She, too, is the granddaughter of the founder of the outdoor and camping goods maker, and the daughter of the previous president.

The outgoing Sanrio president is also one of the oldest chief executives in the country, surpassed only by Nobutsugu Shimizu, the 94-year-old head of supermarket operator Life Corp.

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