Eight years after stepping down as Suzuki Motor’s president, Osamu Suzuki is to return to the top job at the Japanese automaker. Later today, the company is expected to announce that Suzuki, 78, will take over from Hiroshi Tsuda, who after five years as chief is stepping down due to ill health.
Suzuki, who had been chairman, once vowed to “die in battle” and has been at the firm 50 years, even changing his name from Matsuda to Suzuki after marrying the granddaughter of the company’s founder. Despite his age, Suzuki remains a sharp operator and is unusually colorful in public compared to many Japanese CEOs. He is also highly respected for his role in steering Suzuki into India, where it remains the number one automaker, years before it was fashionable. In the first half of 2008, Suzuki was the world’s tenth biggest car maker by unit sales.
Nevertheless, his recall once again highlights the problem of succession at Suzuki. In a September interview with Reuters, Suzuki discussed his sadness after his son-in-law Hirotaka Ono, who he had hoped would be his long-term successor, died of cancer a year ago. “I spent seven years grooming him for the job, but unfortunately he passed away,” he told the wire service. The role is made even more challenging by the current crisis engulfing the global auto industry. In recent weeks, GM sold its remaining share in Suzuki, while Indian sales, which make up a big chunk of its earnings, plummeted 26% in November.
For all that, investors appeared to take the development in their stride. In Tokyo trading, Suzuki’s stock rose 7.1%, which was roughly in line with other automakers. One reason is likely to be that most Suzuki watchers know that, while the septuagenarian exec’s job description has fluctuated over the years, his influence has never waned behind the scenes.