Honda taps first female board member in diversity push

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TOKYO -- Honda Motor Co. appointed its first female board member today and promoted a foreigner to the highest position yet held by a non-Japanese in a move to inject wider outside perspective into its top management as it expands internationally.

Hideko Kunii, 66, is a professor of engineering and gender-equality promotion at Shibaura Institute of Technology.

Honda announced her appointment to the company's 13-member board in a Feb. 24 release. She takes office in June, pending approval at the company's general shareholders' meeting.

She will be the first female director at a big Japanese carmaker; neither Toyota Motor Corp. nor Nissan Motor Corp. has chosen a woman for their top boards. She will be the second director from outside Honda to serve on the current board. The other is Nobuo Kuroyanagi, who was appointed in 2009.

Kunii is a software specialist who spent most of her career at Japanese electronics giant Ricoh.

As part of the annual management shuffle, Honda also promoted Issao Mizoguchi, a Brazilian of Japanese descent, to operating officer. He has worked at Honda's Brazil operations since 1985. He will lead the company's South American business. The advancement makes Mizoguchi the highest ranking non-Japanese in the company's history, spokeswoman Tomoko Takemori said.

The appointments are a nod to Honda's growing dependence on increasingly diverse overseas markets.

The company was the first Japanese automaker to assembly cars in the United States, but its executive suite has long been exclusively run by Japanese males.

"We chose someone appropriate regardless of the nationality or gender for a broader perspective," a Honda spokeswoman said.

Honda's changes follow last year's appointment of a foreign board member, former General Motors executive Mark Hogan, at rival Toyota. Nissan, meanwhile, leads Japan's Big 3 with an executive board packed with international talent.

Japanese automakers, as a standard bearer of Japan Inc., sometimes come under criticism for ossified thinking in their often all-male, all-Japanese boardrooms. But they are inviting new viewpoints as they deepen their dependence on new markets.

Outside board members are still rare. Toyota appointed its first outsiders only last year. Hogan was one of them.

Kunii's appointment breaks a glass ceiling of sorts in Japan's auto industry. But it was U.S.-based General Motors that made history late last year by selecting the industry's first female CEO, in picking Mary Barra as its new global leader.

Kunii is a software specialist who spent the bulk of her career at the Japanese electronics giant Ricoh Co. She also has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas in Austin.

Fresh perspective may help as Honda plunges into new markets.

Honda aims to boost global auto sales to more than 6 million units in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2017, from 4.385 million vehicles forecast for the current fiscal year.

Whereas developed markets account for about 60 percent of Honda's sales today, booming emerging markets are projected to count for more than half in that time frame.

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com. -- Follow Hans on Twitter

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