Lunch with the FT: Sir Howard Stringer

Sir Howard Stringer rises stiffly to greet me. He is still recovering from back surgery to repair a slipped disc, the result of an “insane” travel schedule that saw him fly around the world every month as chief executive of Sony Corporation.

Along with hundreds of other world business leaders, Stringer is in London for the Olympics. We have arranged to have lunch at Theo Randall’s Italian restaurant at the InterContinental Hotel in Park Lane (he once served on the InterContinental board and likes its central location). Olympic dignitaries and guests are milling around in the lobby but the award-winning restaurant is half empty. “Do try the hot zucchini,” he says, welcoming me to a discreet table at the back of the restaurant, “they are delicious.”

Our conversation will inevitably address Stringer’s troubled tenure at Sony – he stepped down as chief executive in April but remains chairman. That might explain why he is twitchy. I am slightly edgy, too. We first met 10 years ago when I was US managing editor for the FT in New York. Our favourite pastime was watching soccer and rugby matches in grimy pubs on the Lower East Side. The highlight was a post-match viewing of England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph in Australia. Stringer, a Welshman, knew the result but never let on. That act alone sealed our friendship.

But this is no time to get sentimental. Stringer, 70, is a hardened former journalist who ran CBS news and entertainment for a decade. I stab a succulent zucchini and return to the subject of his crazy travel schedule: more than 2m air miles on British Airways over seven years, shuttling between New York, London, Tokyo and Los Angeles, where Sony has its Hollywood movie business. Why did he put his body through it? Was it a sense of obligation, or a desire to make history as the first westerner to run Sony, one of Japan’s most respected companies.

“You have to understand that I didn’t expect to get the job,” he says. “I certainly wasn’t looking for it. And so I had very little time to make up my mind. I discussed it with my family and said, ‘I am not sure whether I’ll be seeing you as much, and if you don’t want me to take the job ...’ My daughter said to me, ‘Listen, Daddy, we love you but we love Sony ...’ Whether it was a reflection of the joys of DVDs and PlayStation games, I don’t know. But none of us really knew what I was in for.”

Our waiter arrives with water and menus. Stringer, who is wearing a navy blue blazer with light chequered shirt and tie, opts for buffalo mozzarella, followed by linguine with Dorset blue lobster. I choose mixed salad, followed by risotto. We both steer clear of wine, though Stringer says he likes to share a good bottle at home, either in New York or in the country outside London with his wife, Jennifer, a dermatologist.

I ask whether running Sony was mission impossible. The company’s troubles arguably began in the mid-1990s, well before he arrived. With its catalogue of music and its bedrock of electronics, including the 1980s-defining Walkman personal stereo, Sony could – or should – have been able to create the iPod well before Apple launched the device in 2001. But disastrous infighting and a lack of focus put paid to that.

Stringer was an entertainment guy running a struggling consumer electronics business. He had no background in software. And, most important, he spoke no Japanese. He ended up relying on a small group of fiercely loyal women secretaries as his eyes and ears at Sony HQ. Sounding wistful, he says: “Before I left Tokyo for the last time, we had a [group] photograph which they organised. Very nice.”

Stringer insists several times during our two-and-a-half-hour lunch that he has no interest in revisiting the past (“It’s terrible if the Japanese press see me complaining”). He is fiercely protective of his successor, Kazuo Hirai, who previously ran Sony’s consumer products, games and networked services and who, crucially, speaks fluent English and Japanese. But, when pressed, he offers a robust defence of his own record.

In his first three years as chief executive, between 2005 and 2008, Stringer shifted expensive production overseas, sold business units and developed new ones. Sony was still lagging behind Apple and Samsung, its big rivals, but it was improving operating profits. Then came the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the global financial crisis. The west plunged into recession. The Japanese yen soared against the dollar and euro, killing exports.

In 2011, the losing streak intensified. In addition to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Sony, along with others, suffered a hacking attack on its online video-game network, exposing a mountain of confidential data to potential abuse. Floods in Thailand wiped out production plants ahead of the vital Christmas sales season. Another low point came during the riots in London, when vandals burned down a Sony distribution centre. BBC TV showed a Sony sign crumbling on top of the flaming building.

“No journalist used that picture to make the point, but that said a lot about the year we were having,” says Stringer. “I cannot think of any company that had gone through as much. It was the first fatalistic experience of my career.”

As the waiter arrives with our first course, I reflect that this is a mild exaggeration. Stringer has indeed enjoyed extraordinary success, notably during his time in New York when he ran CBS News and later as boss of Sony’s movie and entertainment business. But the story of how he arrived and stayed in the US was also marked by an extraordinary twist of fate.

Stringer’s father, Harry, grew up in an orphanage and joined the Royal Air Force at 16. The family moved home six times before Howard, born in Cardiff, turned 13. His mother, Marjorie, was a sociable Welsh woman with ambitions for her son. Aged four, he was packed off for (English) elocution lessons. At school, he admits, he was too smart for his own good and was badly bullied. “I was very short,” says Stringer, now well over 6ft. “Everybody else was two years older in my class, and I had curly hair and was teacher’s pet. I was as attractive as you were then ... It was very hard. I took boxing lessons to fight back against the form bully.”

After planting a hard right on the bully’s nose, Stringer never looked back. He won a scholarship at Oundle School and a place at Oxford to study modern history. There he mixed with Americans, including Rhodes scholars. “The energy of the Kennedy years was completely compelling ... I had a sense of a generous society eager to change the world. Idealism was very contagious. So that’s why I went to America. I didn’t intend to stay.”

Within three months of arriving in 1965, and having found a job as a clerk at CBS, he found himself drafted into the US army and heading for Vietnam. At first, he thought it was a mistake. He wrote to Bobby Kennedy, his hero. Then he tried talking his way out of the draft. “When I went for my haircut, I said, ‘It’s not necessary because I’m not staying,’ whereupon they shaved my head along with everybody else.”

Stringer could have scarpered back to Britain and nobody would have noticed. But he remained attached to his “little American dream, his personal great adventure”, even on the troop ship steaming out of Oakland towards Vietnam. Once there, though, he quickly sought out a clerical job looking after financial records and medals. “I may have agreed to be drafted, but I didn’t agree to be killed.”

After a year, he was back in the US (in uniform), and successfully applying for his old job. Ironically, Vietnam gave him his first break at CBS. At the height of the war he accompanied Walter Cronkite, the legendary anchorman, on a series of interviews with President Johnson at his Texas ranch. Five frustrating years later, he was promoted to “assistant associate producer” (CBS bureaucracy!) and asked to make a two-hour documentary on the Rockefellers. He had never been the sole producer of anything but the Rockefellers were mightily impressed with his Oxford degree. The programme won an Emmy award. Stringer was set.

Stringer says he has always had a knack of spotting when to jump to the next job. When the length and frequency of documentaries was cut, he moved to network news. When the evening news ratings went into decline, he left CBS, joining Sony in 1997. “I’ve always jumped jobs because the future was catching up with me. And, ironically, that’s happened in Sony as well in a way.”

Our main courses have arrived. I want to hear more about Stringer’s insights into Sony and modern Japan. He again defers to his successor. Then he points me to the independent commission report into the Fukushima disaster, which highlighted four fundamental flaws in Japanese culture: reflexive obedience; reluctance to question authority; devotion to sticking with the programme; and hierarchy.

Many of these weaknesses apply to Sony, I suggest. When Stringer was appointed chief executive, the board simultaneously appointed as president an engineer called Ryoji Chubachi. With overall responsibility for electronics, President Chubachi wielded the power. “Well, actually, they didn’t tell me that when I took the job,” Stringer says. “They said I was CEO. That’s the first cultural contrast. The CEO is in charge in America.”

I ask whether he agrees with the off-the-record verdict of one of his Asian competitors: that Sony’s biggest weakness is that “it still does not know what went wrong”. Having led the world in consumer electronics, it was left behind by the digital revolution of smartphones and social media. Sony epitomises the conflict in Japanese technology between “hardware culture” and “software culture”. The first focuses on creating “perfect” products from the start; the second emphasises speed to the market.

Stringer agrees that US companies such as Amazon, Apple and Microsoft have had the hardware manufactured in China cheaply and then applied their own high-class software. The iPod, he points out, was far less well-manufactured than the Walkman, but the fact is that it was brought out quickly and cheaply. “Japan can’t get anything on the market very cheaply because it has a large, relatively highly paid workforce which you can’t fire,” he says. But, he adds, “I’m getting nervous now, not because you are not getting it right but because I don’t want to feel like the end is nigh. I don’t want to give that impression.” He stresses that Sony has embraced the digital revolution, more so than other Japanese companies. Indeed, even the master – Steve Jobs of Apple – regularly visited Sony in the early 2000s to learn about its manufacturing and technology.

Jobs actually floated the idea of a merger between Apple and Sony, I say. “Yes, but not with the whole company,” says Stringer, before retreating. “Yes, I think he was [thinking of that], but he didn’t say that to me.”

Stringer has left half of the linguine untouched, while I have polished off a tasty risotto. His legacy, he says, will be to have skipped a generation in selecting Sony’s top management. Aside from the 51-year-old “Kaz”, a cadre of highly talented executives in their fifties or younger now run movies, recorded music, TV production and music publishing. The top group includes another Oxford-educated Welshman, Andy House (who does speak fluent Japanese).

Stringer is now looking to life after Sony. He has been offered corporate directorships, he says, but he really wants to raise money for his charities, perhaps picking a single one to focus on. He is currently on the board of Teach For America and the American Theatre Wing (which does the Tony awards) and is about to go into his 11th year as chairman of the American Film Institute. Above all, he is looking forward to spending more time in New York.

“The hardest thing about being at Sony was not the travel; it was being divorced from the public and private life I had in New York. Travelling as much as I did, while I didn’t lose connection with my friends, I lost a sense of belonging.”

The recent death of the writer Nora Ephron, a close friend, was a heavy blow. Most of Stringer’s friends are journalists of the 1960s generation, and they are getting older. “There’s no getting away from it. You suddenly wake up and you start reading the obituary columns. You’re a decade away from it and it’s inevitable; it’s just inevitable.”

As we make our way out of the restaurant, I notice Stringer is still moving gingerly. He stretches out a hand and says, “Be nice.”

Lionel Barber is editor of the FT

Theo Randall

1 Hamilton Place, Park Lane, London W1

Bottle Acqua Panna £4.50

Buffalo mozzarella with marinated artichokes, Taggiasche olives, swiss chard and grilled marinated peppers £13.00

Mixed salad – Italian leaves with datterini tomatoes, cucumber, fresh basil and caprino fresco £10.00

Linguine with Dorset blue lobster, San Marzano tomatoes,parsley and fresh chilli £23.00

Roasted red and yellow pepper risotto with basil, butter and parmigiano reggiano £15.00

Fresh mint teas x 2 £11.00

Total (including service) £86.06

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