Tuesday, October 5, 1999
With the death October 3 of Sony Corp. co-founder Akio Morita Japan lost far more than its business leader best known abroad. One of the last of the pioneers of its postwar economic recovery is gone, with few possible replacements. The need is obvious because, as is true for many industrial giants, Mr. Morita lived long enough to see a bitter irony. His daring approach to business now is far more prevalent among U.S. firms, his criticism of American companies notwithstanding, than among their Japanese counterparts.
Sony was, when it began life in 1946 in a Tokyo department store bombed out in World War II, exactly what the desperate country needed: a new company with young, energetic leaders with ideas about the potential for new goods and services using technologies then new. Like Americans Henry Ford, Milton Hershey and others half a century earlier, he founded a company that got in on the ground floor of an emerging industry. Without any excess baggage in the form of existing facilities, commitments and the like, firms that saw the future clearly were able to grow rapidly and make multimillionaires of their founders. Many other equally daring entrepreneurs lost everything and died poor.
While Mr. Morita had lots of swashbuckling company in the 1940s, in recent years, successful startups that grow to giants have become rarer in Japan than in the United States. (See JEI Report No. 12A, March 26, 1999). At the end of a century that began with the emergence of people like Rockefeller, Ford, Hershey and others, the United States continues to spawn entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, but half a century after Mr. Morita entered the scene, one is hard pressed to name a Japanese successor. Despite Mr. Morita's criticism a decade ago that U.S. firms, in contrast to Japanese firms, had a short-term outlook, the current reality is almost the reverse. Japanese companies, Sony included, have clung to traditional practices and been slow to enter new product categories. For reasons elaborated in the JEI Report, they have not been challenged by newcomers. Although many American companies often been just as traditional, upstarts like Dell Computer have shown the way, just as Sony did to its tradition-bound rivals at home and abroad 50 years ago.