At 69, Sir Howard Stringer’s time as CEO of the unwieldy electronics giant is running out. Can he and heir apparent Kazuo Hirai turn it around?
Sir Howard Stringer remembers when 2011 was going to be wonderful. “This was the first year of the payoff,” he says, “and next year was going to be the second.” As chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Sony (SNE), Stringer had spent six years trying to return the Japanese icon to its former glory and open a new era of growth. Sony expected an annual operating profit of at least $2 billion, its best in three years. A batch of new products was headed for store shelves, including its first tablets, a compact 24-megapixel camera, and a portable PlayStation player. Sony was also preparing to launch a global network that would connect the company’s movies, music, and video games to all its televisions, tablets, PCs, and phones—an iTunes-like digital platform. “I honestly and truly thought I was going to have a year to remember,” he says over breakfast in his 14th-floor apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. “And I did, but in the wrong way.”
The feeling of imminent triumph ended abruptly on Mar. 11. Stringer was in New York, having flown in from Tokyo the night before for emergency back surgery. Around 4:30 a.m., he opened a text message: An earthquake followed by a tsunami had devastated eastern Japan.