Akio Morita (1921 – 1999)

If a country that was ravaged by the evil of war and bombs, bounced back to become the No.2 economy in the world, the credit must go to Japanese people like Akio Morita, the man who made the name “Sony” a global household.

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He was the man who created one of the first global corporations. He saw long before his contemporaries that a shrinking world could present enormous opportunities for a company that could think beyond its own boundaries, both physically and psychologically. And he pursued that strategy with his relentless brand of energy in every market, particularly the United States. It is notable that in 1998, according to a survey, Sony was rated the No.1 brand name by American consumers, ahead of Coca-Cola and General Electric.

The best way to describe Morita’s extraordinary drive is to scan his schedule for the two-month period immediately preceding his stroke in November, 1994, while playing tennis. He took trips from his home base in Tokyo to New Jersey, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Dallas, Britain, Barcelona and Paris. During that time he met Queen Elizabeth II, General Electric chief Jack Welch, future French President Jacques Chirac, Isaac Stern and many other politicians, bureaucrats and business associates. He attended two concerts and a movie; took four trips within Japan; appeared at eight receptions; played nine rounds of golf; was guest of honor at a wedding ceremony; and went to work as usual for 17 days at Sony headquarters. Morita’s schedule had been decided on more than a year in advance. Whenever there was a small opening, Morita would immediately and strategically fill it by arranging a meeting with someone he wanted to become acquainted with or catch up with. Unlike so many executives who removed themselves from the rest of the corporate pyramid, he was always in the middle of the action.

Born on January 26, 1921, Morita had been groomed since the third grade to become successor of the family business; a prominent sake-brewing company in Nagoya.”Sake” is a Japanese alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. As a student, Akio often sat in company meetings with his father and he would help with the family business even on school holidays. From an early age, Akio was fond of playing with electronic appliances, and mathematics and physics were his favorite subjects during his elementary and junior high school days. After graduating from High School, he entered the Physics Department at Osaka Imperial University.Akio Morita

Morita was an officer in the Japanese navy during World War II. He met Masaru Ibuka, a Japanese electronics industrialist who had already earned a nickname “genius inventor” and co-founded Sony Corporation in 1946. Prior to 1958, the company was called Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation. At that time, Ibuka was 38 years-old, and the company was launched with 20 employees. While Ibuka devoted his energies to technological research and product development, Morita was instrumental in leading Sony in the areas of marketing, globalization, finance and human resources. Morita also spearheaded Sony’s entry into the software business, and he contributed to the overall management of the company.

In 1949 the company developed magnetic recording tape and in 1950 sold its first tape recorder in Japan. In 1957 the company produced a pocket-sized radio and a year later renamed itself Sony. (Sonus is a Latin word for sound, and Sonny- boys is Japanese slang for ‘whiz kids’) There was opposition within the company to change the name to Sony. Morita stressed that it was necessary to change the name to something easy to pronounce, (In Japanese, it was known as “Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo”) and obviously the move reflected the company’s drive to expand its business globally.

The Morita-Ibuka alliance’s focus was on brand identity, and the duo sought to provide the best available technology and quality to the customer or consumer. One of Sony’s first products was a transistor radio, produced in 1955. While the transistor was developed by Bell Labs and produced by Western Electric, it was Sony that first used it for a small pocket radio, in 1957, creating a new market in the bargain.

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The radio’s success led to more firsts in transistorized products, such as a fl­inch television and a videotape recorder. Sony’s technological achievements in product design, production and marketing helped to change the image of MADE IN JAPAN from a notion of cheap imitations to one associated with superior quality. In Morita’s own words, they made Sony the Cadillac of Electronics.

In 1960 Sony produced the first transistor television in the world. It was also the year when Sony Corporation of America was established in the United States.

Morita decided to move to the U.S. with his family and took the lead in creating new sales channels for the company. He believed that Sony should develop its own direct sales channels, rather than relying on local dealers. In that way he would understand Americans, their market, customs and regulations, thereby increasing the chance of his company’s success. It was a brilliant decision. Not many businessmen in those days possessed such a passionate and determined business vision. In the United States, Morita settled into a large Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan. He built a solid and valuable network by continually socializing and giving parties during the week, a habit he maintained throughout his career.

1979 walkman sony

Morita once watched his children and their friends playing music from morning until night. He noticed people listening to music in their cars and carrying large stereos to the beach and the park. He insisted on a product that sounded like a high-quality car stereo yet was portable and allowed the user to listen while doing something else – and this is how the “walkman” was born. Sony America considered walkman bad English and changed it to Sound about for the United States, Freestyle for Sweden and Stowaway for Britain. Morita did not like the idea of using a different name for each country, and when sales were less than rewarding, he changed the name universally to Sony Walkman. Subsequently, the Walkman became a worldwide hit and is now featured in renowned dictionaries.

In 1961 Sony Corporation of America was the first Japanese company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange and eventually in 1989 Sony bought Columbia pictures.

Morita was the first Japanese to be awarded the Albert Medal from the United Kingdom’s Royal Society of Arts in 1982. In 1984, he received the National Order of the Legion of Honor (Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur), the highest and most prestigious French order, and in 1991, he was awarded the First Class Order of the Sacred Treasure from H. M. the Emperor of Japan. In addition, Morita received numerous awards from countries such as Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States, which indeed demonstrates the extent of his global recognition.

Akio Morita (1921 – 1999)
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