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Suntory seeks global boost with new blood for top job

Publication Date : 26-06-2014


In selecting a president from outside the family for the first time in its century-plus history, Suntory Holdings Ltd. appears to be looking to accelerate its globally focused strategy of overseas acquisitions and other moves amid a shrinking domestic market.

The giant beverage maker is planning to replace current president and chairman Nobutada Saji, 68, with Lawson Inc. chairman Takeshi Niinami, 55, sources said. Saji is the fourth member of the founding family to have led the firm as president.

“I intend to grow [Suntory’s] strengths while treasuring the spirit of the founding family. I want to offer new value to people worldwide,” Niinami, who is also on the government’s Industrial Competitiveness Council, told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday.

Niinami is a regular at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland—an annual meeting of the world’s economic and political elite—so is considered to have extensive global connections.

At a press conference Tuesday, Saji told reporters that he hoped Niinami would use those relationships to Suntory’s benefit.

“The next three to five years are an important period that will determine Suntory’s destiny in the 21st century. We have big hopes for [Niinami’s] ability to operate worldwide and for his personal connections. I’m confident he will fulfill these expectations,” Saji said.

At Lawson, Niinami worked to differentiate the company from other firms, with measures such as increasing the availability of fresh food in its stores.

Saji has said that Niinami has the “yatte minahare” spirit. This Osaka dialect phrase was a favourite of founder Shinjiro Torii, meaning roughly, “Do it and see what happens.” The motto is symbolic of Suntory’s free and open-minded corporate culture.

Niinami’s appointment was reportedly unopposed by members of the founding family, who hold about 90 per cent of Suntory stock.

Suntory began in 1899 as Torii Shoten. After entering into the business of making and marketing wine, it started the first domestic whiskey distillery in 1923.

Keizo Saji and Shinichiro Torii, the second and third company presidents, expanded the business into beer, beverages, medicine, shochu liquor and other areas.

In 2009, fourth leader Nobutada Saji sought to realise a management integration with Kirin Holdings Co., to become “a company that can fight on the world stage”.

The talks eventually broke down, but he pushed forward with overseas acquisitions, including the purchase earlier this year of major US whiskey maker Jim Beam Inc.

The founder’s great-grandson, Nobuhiro Torii, 48, is currently president of group subsidiary Suntory Beverage & Food, which handles the soft drink business. It is hoped Niinami will serve as a mentor for him, the sources said.

The merging of the world’s biggest brewer InBev of Belgium with Anheuser-Busch Co. of the United States—the world’s No. 3 brewer and owner of the famous Budweiser brand—is representative of how overseas competition is also seeking to expand in scale.

Whether Niinami is able to bring a breath of fresh air to Suntory is something that will be closely watched.

Rise of the ‘pro manager’

The practice of tapping top executives from other industries or famous companies for leadership positions is becoming more common in corporate Japan, even among family-owned firms like Suntory.

The promotion of “professional managers” has spread because it is thought they can offer a sense of speed that companies are unable to find on the inside.

Eiko Harada, 65, is a typical example of this new class of managers, having held the top job in three different industries: Apple Japan, McDonald’s Japan and Benesse Holdings Inc., a major correspondence education company.

“The appointment of outsiders to leadership jobs is going to accelerate, since they can vitalize organisations by bringing in fresh blood from outside,” said Yasuaki Takemoto, president of Search Firm Japan Corp., a major corporate headhunter.


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