TOKYO - Honda Motor Co. has chosen a caretaker president to succeed Nobuhiko Kawamoto, who will retire in June. Hiroyuki Yoshino, a respected engineer and a longtime close associate of Kawamoto, is not expected to make many changes.
He also is not expected to hold the post very long.
At 58, Yoshino is well above the 41-to-54 age range of previous Honda presidents when they took the job. He is only four years younger than Kawamoto - who is two years past Honda's mandatory retirement age of 60.
Yoshino acknowledged that his appointment seems to go against Honda's culture.
'I don't necessarily think I'm too old,' said Yoshino, 'but this company needs young leadership.' He said that age is a matter not just of years but also of such qualities as flexibility and a willingness to seek new challenges.
Perfect career path
Yoshino will become president after confirmation at the Honda shareholders meeting in late June. His career has closely paralleled Kawamoto's. They have occupied many of the posts traditionally used as training grounds for future presidents.
After graduating from Tokyo University with a degree in aeronautical engineering, Yoshino joined Honda R&D Co. in 1963, the same year as Kawamoto. Honda R&D is the engineering heart of Honda, responsible for car development and manufacturing technologies.
l Three years later, Yoshino was sent to the USA to learn about the new emissions regulations that would soon confront carmakers. He then joined the team, headed by Kawamoto, that in 1974 produced the ground-breaking CVCC engine. It was the first powerplant to meet US emissions standards without using a catalytic converter.
Yoshino also headed Honda's efforts in Formula One and other motorsports for two years. He led Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. 1988-1992, a period in which the company more than doubled the size of its factory complex and workforce.
Despite Yoshino's impeccable background, some industry analysts are surprised at his appointment.
'Generally, people were expecting a much younger management to replace Kawamoto,' said Kaoru Kurata, auto analyst for Goldman Sachs (Japan) Ltd. 'I personally thought one of the managing directors would take over. Three or four years ahead, maybe one of the managing directors will take his place.'
By then, however, Honda's current lineup of senior managing directors will probably be too old to enter the president's office. The youngest of them, Kunihiro Chujo, a well-regarded finance manager, is already 56.
Among the ranks of managing directors, those often mentioned as possible presidential material include:
Kentaro Kato, 49, president of Honda of UK Manufacturing
Takeo Fukui, 53, head of Honda of America Manufacturing Inc.
Michiyoshi Hagino, 54, who since last June has been a key lieutenant of Yoshino's in overseeing new-product development.
Auto analysts and Japanese auto journalists have been critical of Kawamoto for a sometimes dictatorial management approach that failed to develop a clear line of succession.
He became president in 1990, just after Japan's so-called Bubble Economy burst, and the country was headed for its worst recession since World War II.
Auto sales in Japan were collapsing, and with the US economy also soft, Honda's profits were suffering. Mitsubishi Motors Corp.'s sales threatened to overtake Honda's.
Kawamoto went on the offensive. He boldly declared that Honda would nearly double its Japan sales by 1998 to 800,000 as a way to reduce the company's dependence on the US market. Analysts and competitors were openly sceptical.
Kawamoto succeeded. With a string of hot models, Honda's Japanese sales reached 801,782 in 1997, while its worldwide sales rose 11 percent to 2.3 million.
Honda's share of the Japanese market in the fiscal year ending 31 March rose to a record 12.2 percent - well ahead of Mitsubishi's 10 percent and Mazda's 4.8 percent share.
At the same time, profits have been helped by the weak yen. Honda has not yet released figures for the fiscal year just ended, but the company says its consolidated net income will top last year's record $1.78 billion.
The record profits will allow Honda to celebrate its 50th anniversary next September by re-entering Formula One racing.
In recent years, analysts say, Kawamoto has set out his vision of the company's goals and indicated market segments that Honda needs to enter. Yoshino, meanwhile, has managed product development with an efficiency that is the envy of the industry. He gets many vehicles from a small number of platforms, uses common parts, and gets products to market quickly.
'They've established a plan for the next several years,' said Peter Boardman, auto analyst at UBS Securities in Tokyo. 'Yoshino is going to implement that strategy. He's been the guy who helped do all the cost cutting from the beginning.'
Now, say Boardman and others, Yoshino just has to keep Honda on track for another three to five years while the next generation of managers prepares to take control.