Norio Ohga, the former Sony chairman who helped revolutionize consumer electronics with handheld entertainment devices and who steered Sony into the entertainment biz with the acquisition of Columbia Pictures, died today of multiple organ failure in Tokyo. He was 81. (Sad that the current Sony Pictures Entertainment regime thought so little of Ohga’s passing that they didn’t even bother to inform the Hollywood media in a timely fashion.) Ohga, credited with developing the compact disc, led Sony from 1982 to 1995 after being talented-spotted by Sony founders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita while still a university student. Some decisions made during Ohga’s tenure, such as the $5 billion purchase of CBS Records and then the Hollywood studio, were criticized as unwise and costly at the time. But Ohga insisted that “hardware and software are two wheels on a car,” and his focus on music, films, and video games as a way to enrich the electronics business helped create Sony’s success in his era. His own love of music and first career as an opera singer led him to ensure the CD held 75 minutes of music — enough to store Beethoven’s complete Ninth Symphony.
Also, his outgoing persona also made him comfortable with Americans, and he put the first non-Japanese, American physicist Mickey Schulhof, on the Sony board (they both shared passions for ham radios and jet planes), which later paved the way for the hiring of Howard Stringer as Sony Corp’s first non-Japanese chairman. “It is no exaggeration to attribute Sony’s evolution beyond audio and video products into music, movies and game, and subsequent transformation into a global entertainment leader to Ohga-san’s foresight and vision,” Stringer said today.
Ohga stopped being involved in Sony’s day-to-day business in 2000. But had he been in charge I bet he never would have allowed Sony to become an also-ran to such electronics pioneers as Samsung and Apple as it has become in the last decade. Ohga saw Sony’s big consumer mistake of betting on its proprietary VCR technology of Beta over what became the industry standard of VHS. But that’s why Ohga bought into Hollywood and brought in Schulhof to head Sony USA and its entertainment subsidiaries: so that Sony would never be left out in the cold again by showbiz on such format decisions. With Ohga’s blessing, Schulhof negotiated a compromise between Sony’s proprietary CD technology and other showbiz companies and electronics makers to create a single industry standard. Again this paved the way for the same thing to happen for DVDs and Blu-ray.
Ohga assumed the blame when Schulhof brought in producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters to run Sony Pictures Entertainment, and they and their handpicked execs performed so poorly that Sony Corp took a humiliating $3.2 billion write-down on the studio in 1994. There also was considerable management turmoil inside CBS Records. On the other hand, Ohga with Schulhof oversaw one of the fastest start-ups in Sony’s history, Sony Electronic Publishing, whose CD-ROM compact discs led in market share until the format gave way to new technology as did Sony’s CDs and mini-discs. However, both missed, together with Bill Gates, the Internet phenom. Here is Sony’s official obituary:
Tokyo, Japan – It is with great sadness that Sony Corporation today announced the loss of Norio Ohga, Senior Advisor and former President and Chairman, Sony Corporation. Mr. Ohga passed away at 9:14 AM on April 23, 2011 in Tokyo. The cause of death was multiple organ failure. He was 81 years old. A private wake will be held among family and close relatives, and a company service will take place at a later date.
Commenting on today’s loss, Sir Howard Stringer, Chairman, CEO and President, Sony Corporation said, “When I first joined Sony in 1997, Ohga-san was serving on the frontlines of Sony management as Chairman and CEO. His numerous and successful endeavors were well-known both inside and outside of Sony. Witnessing Ohga-san’s leadership firsthand was truly an honor, and one I continued to enjoy and benefit from in countless ways in the years that followed.
By redefining Sony as a company encompassing both hardware and software, Ohga-san succeeded where other Japanese companies failed. It is no exaggeration to attribute Sony’s evolution beyond audio and video products into music, movies and game, and subsequent transformation into a global entertainment leader to Ohga-san’s foresight and vision.
I offer my deepest condolences on his passing and pray that he may rest in peace.”
Mr. Ohga was a student at the Faculty of Music of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (now Tokyo University of the Arts) when he first met Sony founders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita. Sony’s founders immediately sensed in Mr. Ohga the makings of a leader, and someone whose expert knowledge of sound and electrical engineering would benefit the company greatly. Therefore, in 1953, while still a student, Mr. Ohga was appointed a consultant and advisor to Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation (now Sony Corporation) before fully entering the Company in 1959.
After joining Sony, Mr. Ohga worked tirelessly to enhance product quality, functionality and design, while also revolutionizing the Company’s marketing and advertising initiatives, paving the way for the launch of a succession of innovative and game-changing products. Mr. Ohga passionately advocated the creation of products that would be “attractive in the eyes of consumers”, a philosophy that came to represent the principles of Sony’s approach to design and engineering, and was key to the Company’s worldwide success and growth.
Mr. Ohga, together with Mr. Morita, shared a deep understanding of the importance of brand management, and together they took every opportunity to remind employees to think first and act later, emphasizing that every one of their decisions had an impact on the Sony brand. One of Mr. Ohga’s favorite expressions was, “The four letters of the ‘SONY’ brand are our greatest asset.” His efforts to spread the spirit of that message among every Sony employee were critical to enabling Sony to become the globally recognized brand it is today.
Mr. Ohga was also a man of vision and foresight. Anticipating the future potential of compact optical disc formats, he personally drove Sony’s initiatives to explore this new frontier. During the development of the CD, it was Mr. Ohga’s instincts as a trained musician that led him to push for a 12 centimeter format, providing sufficient recording capacity at 75 minutes to enable listeners to enjoy all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony without interruption. These negotiations resulted in the CD specifications still in use today. After Sony commercialized the world’s first CD in 1982, sales grew rapidly, and by 1987, CDs had overtaken LP record sales in Japan, changing the way people listened to music. Mr. Ohga’s efforts to establish the CD format also contributed to the launch of subsequent optical disc formats such as the MD, CD-ROM and the DVD, which not only revolutionized the consumer electronics and music recording industries, but also other areas of technology, such as computer memory and game software.
Driven by his philosophy that “hardware and software are two wheels on a car”, Mr. Ohga also led Sony’s negotiations with CBS Corp, resulting in the establishment of CBS/Sony Records Inc. (now Sony Music Entertainment Inc.) in 1968. Taking an entirely new approach to record label management, which included the record company identifying and nurturing new artists itself, Mr. Ohga successfully grew CBS/Sony into a market leader that by 1978 – only ten years after its establishment – led the industry in both annual sales and profit.
Mr. Ohga continued to push the boundaries of Sony’s content strategy, venturing beyond music into motion pictures, with the purchase of Columbia Pictures in 1989. With this acquisition, the foundations for Sony’s evolution into a comprehensive entertainment company were now firmly in place.
Mr. Ohga also presided over the launch of Sony’s game business. The establishment of Sony Computer Entertainment in 1993 and subsequent worldwide success of “PlayStation” quickly secured Sony’s position at the forefront of this industry.
Throughout his career, Mr. Ohga also remained true to his calling as a trained musician, tirelessly devoting his energy to providing a solid financial base for the struggling classical music industry in Japan. He rescued the Japan Music Art Promotion (JMARP) institution which was facing the threat of closure, and was subsequently appointed Director. The organization was renamed Sony Music Foundation, and embarked on a range of new initiatives, including assisting the development of aspiring young musicians, and supporting various concerts and musical events to promote the growth of classical music as an art form.