Japan's Nobuyuki Idei

Several years ago, all bets were off as far as Sony Corp. was concerned. The world's forerunner in consumer-electronics equipment appeared to be fading into the sunset, along with other heroes of Japan's vaunted "economic miracle." Sony had lost $3.2 billion in the Hollywood movie business, and sales of the Walkmans and Trinitrons that it relied on heavily were starting to slow. Then, along came Nobuyuki Idei, a marketing ace who had a vision: to revive Sony and turn it into Asia's first powerhouse in information-technology (IT) entertainment.

It's a daunting task. But so far, Idei, 60, is making it look easy. In the three years since becoming the surprise choice for president, Idei has improved the company's Hollywood operations, streamlined management, and increased profits. Thanks to him and to booming sales in the game, film, and information technology components units, Sony ranks today as one of Japan's--and Asia's--biggest success stories, despite the region's severe economic slump. In fiscal 1997, the company managed to post record operating income of $3.9 billion on revenue of $51 billion.

An economics graduate from Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University, Idei has no formal background in information. He joined Sony upon graduation in 1960 and, eight years later, was sent to Paris to start up its French unit. Later, in the early '80s, during a stint in the company's personal-computer unit, Idei got a school-of-hard-knocks lesson when Sony came out with an 8-bit computer--at just the moment IBM was unveiling a 16-bit rival. The PC unit was phased out, but Idei continued to study the market, eventually concluding that Sony needed to change.

By the time Norio Ohga, Sony's chairman and chief executive, named him president, Idei had devised a "digital dream." In the world as Idei envisions it, Sony will supply IT appliances; create digital content through its film, music, and game divisions; and deliver it by cable or satellite. Idei is convinced that Sony's development lies in the convergence of the PC and the TV. "I think everything will be networked in the future," he says.

Some Sony executives grumble that Idei is moving too fast into uncharted territory. But his admirers far outnumber his critics. "He's extremely talented, flexible, and quick-thinking," asserts Ohga, who last month anointed Idei as his co-chief executive. Others see in him another Akio Morita, Sony's co-founder and ailing patriarch, now living in Hawaii. "Morita was a super businessman, and Idei is a lot like him," says Mitsuru Ohki, head of Sony's broadcasting and professional-systems division. Like Morita, the golf-loving Idei is a risk-taker and flamboyant--by Japanese standards. Although a new grandfather, he drives a Porsche, favors Italian suits and expensive casual wear, and appears at opening night concerts by such Sony stars as Celine Dion.

Morita, along with his founding partner, the late Masaru Ibuka, managed to build Sony into an entertainment-electronics giant in the analog age. Idei's task is probably tougher--to lead Sony to a digital future fraught with uncertainty. But it's a gamble Idei can't afford not to take.

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