Akio Morita: Mr. Consumer Electronics

Sony's genius ushered in the portable transistor radio, the Walkman, and the CD

As part of its anniversary celebration, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles of the greatest innovators of the past 75 years. Some made their mark in science or technology; others in management, finance, marketing, or government. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek will publish a special commemorative issue on Innovation.

Akio Morita worked frantically as chaos closed in on Japan in mid-1945. A young Navy lieutenant, Morita had joined a team of scientists to perfect new thermal-guidance weapons and night-vision gun sights. Japanese technology to the rescue? That illusion evaporated when atomic bombs of the U.S. Armed Forces abruptly ended the war.

But Morita, a physics grad of Osaka Imperial University, saw nothing but promise in Japan's technological prowess. In 1946, he and a young engineer, Masaru Ibuka, launched a company with the clunky name of Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corp. In 1958 they renamed their venture Sony (SNE ) (it sounds like the Latin word for sound) to appear less Japanese.

The renaming was classic Morita, who was as much a marketing genius as a tech wizard. Sony would prove to be the most innovative company in postwar Japan, ushering in numerous breakthroughs in consumer electronics -- from the Walkman portable stereo/cassette player to the all-important compact disk, which it developed with Philips Electronics. But Morita also knew the art of the pitch. When launching the Walkman in the U.S., Morita had special white shirts made with oversized pockets for his salesmen -- to prove that the original device could easily be carried. In the 1960s, when "Made in Japan" meant shoddy goods to many U.S. customers, Morita moved himself and his family to New York to sell his company's products and to learn the language and ways of what would eventually be Sony's biggest market. Morita was one of the first in Japan to encourage company executives to learn English -- a shrewd move that increased Sony's aura of internationalism.

Japan Inc. was proud of Morita, but was never quite sure what to make of him. As a young man, he bucked the established norms for a first son by walking away from the family sake business in Nagoya. Instead, he gambled his future on a startup based in an abandoned department store in a bombed-out section of Tokyo. At first the going was rough: Ibuka and Morita ferried supplies to headquarters in a Datsun truck they picked up on the black market for $100. An electric rice cooker never got off the ground, and Sony's first tape recorder was an expensive monster that weighed 75 pounds and proved a tough sell in hardscrabble postwar Japan. Later on, though, Morita and Ibuka became fascinated by the work of William B. Shockley at Bell Laboratories, where the transistor was developed. In 1953, they paid $25,000 to license the technology and after four years rolled out a portable transistor radio that became a smash hit. Forty years later the transistor radio maker had morphed into a global giant with $72 billion in sales.

Morita didn't get everything right. Sony's early Betamax standard for videocassette recorders got crushed by the VHS format championed by such rivals as Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. (MC ). And Morita's backing of Sony's $3.7 billion acquisition of Columbia Pictures Entertainment in 1989 resulted in huge initial losses. Five years after Morita's death from a stroke, Sony is battling to regain supremacy in an industry where companies such as Samsung Corp. have learned the vocabulary of cool, too. But Sony created the consumer-electronics industry as we know it, and it's Morita's dazzling success that all rivals still strive to emulate.

By Brian Bremner

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