Originally created 10/25/98

Sony chief sees opportunity



TOKYO -- Sony Corp. Chairman Norio Ohga has never been one to keep opinions to himself, and if there ever was a time for sounding off, now certainly would seem to be it.

Japan's economy -- home market for the Walkmans, HandyCams and other products Mr. Ohga's company sells -- is in its worst recession in decades. Consumers are gloomy, companies are going under.

But unlike just about everybody else in this country, Mr. Ohga is almost sanguine. Contrary to popular opinion, he says, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi isn't so bad. And Sony, thank you very much, is humming along just fine.

"It's in the hard times that companies grow," Mr. Ohga said in a recent interview.

A harsh critic of the fiscal reform-obsessed administration of former Japanese leader Ryutaro Hashimoto, Mr. Ohga is guardedly optimistic about his successor, Mr. Obuchi.

"I think now things are better than they were under Hashimoto," he said, noting Mr. Obuchi's willingness to grease the wheels of the economy by boosting deficit spending. "At the very least, this Cabinet seems to understand."

An accomplished opera singer, Mr. Ohga, 68, has never had much trouble getting people's attention.

He is an unabashed maverick who can fly his own corporate jet, speak German and boast of having conducted an orchestra before a sellout crowd at New York's Lincoln Center.

His penchant for offering unsolicited advice is not a newly acquired trait. It won him his first job at Sony back in the 1950s, when he was taken on as an adviser because of his frank criticism of the company's tape recorders while still a student.

He went on to help develop the compact disk and champion MiniDisk technology.

Now, he has the government's ear as well, both as head of one of Japan's best-known companies and as vice-chairman of Keidanren, the nation's leading big business lobby.

Mr. Ohga has repeatedly voiced concerns about the government's efforts to deal with the roughly $1 trillion in bad loans racked up by Japanese banks.

Mr. Obuchi's ruling party and opposition forces have wrangled over legislation to ease the banking crisis, debating whether ailing banks should be rescued with taxpayer money.

Mr. Ohga says he believes Mr. Obuchi is on the right track, but says action must be sped up.

"Japan has got to act rapidly to prevent a worldwide recession," he said, adding that "as much public money as necessary" should be used to clean up the bad debt morass.

In the meantime, Mr. Ohga happily notes that his own backyard is the picture of tranquility.

While other Japanese electronics makers will have trouble avoiding red ink this year, Sony is flush with cash -- even though it does expect falling prices to start eroding profits after several years of record earnings.

Sony's strength is partially due to the widely respected managerial talents of Nobuyuki Idei, 60, who was named president three years ago when Mr. Ohga became chairman.

The company has also been able to ride out the prolonged economic slump in Japan with an old formula for success -- exporting to more vibrant markets, the U.S. in particular.

Not so long ago, sales in the United States accounted for about one-quarter of Sony's revenue stream. Mr. Ohga said American sales have recently shot up to more than one-third of the total revenue -- making it Sony's biggest single market.

But that export formula -- however good it may be for Sony's bottom line -- has been criticized as way of spreading around Japan's economic woes.