Talking green, seeing red

By Sheridan Prasso

June 20, 2006

Tomoyo Nonaka, a former TV journalist, was brought in as CEO and chairman of troubled Sanyo Electric last year. Earlier this year she was stripped of her CEO title following a bailout by a team of investors led by Goldman Sachs.

Nonaka, who remains chairman, insists she hasn't lost any power and says that despite Sanyo's unprofitable outlook, she is taking the company in the right direction with her "Think GAIA" strategy to make "greener" products. She sat down recently at the Japan Society in New York City with contributing writer Sheridan Prasso.

Why did you lose your CEO title?

Not lost. Management decided to abolish American titles and just use Japanese ones. It doesn't mean that because the American title is eliminated, my responsibility is reduced. In the new management system, the chairman is responsible for executing policies and programs, handling branding strategies, and serving as chairman of the board.

But who runs the company? If you want to sell off the semiconductor business, do you have the power?

Of course. But that's not a healthy way to manage a big company. Decision-making power is not in the hands of one person, but power belongs to the board. If it is 4-4, who makes the decision? It's me.

As a woman in corporate Japan, you realize that some are skeptical of that power?

Very skeptical. Jealous. Last year the head of the Keidanren told me to watch out, that professional male jealousy is deeper and wider than that of females. I didn't understand at the time. Now I understand what it means.

What does it mean?

My "Think GAIA" vision--people just take it lightly, calling it too naive, or green, or childish, or womanly. But this is a fundamental thing for Sanyo. Simply bringing Sanyo back into the black, there are probably many ways to do that: manipulate financials, sell this, sell that. That won't work for medium- to long-term growth.

Can you explain your "going green" strategy and why it's key to Sanyo long term?

"Think GAIA" doesn't mean "going green." It defines our commitment to provide cutting-edge solutions for a sustainable earth and an enriched life by weaving together Sanyo's numerous proprietary technologies. Our first product was the Eneloop, a rechargeable battery. We have introduced the Virus Washer, an air-purifying system that removes 99% of airborne viruses. And we are confident that our proprietary technology can contribute to solving the world's water problems.

So how will you reassure investors?

Most investors want to recover their investment in the short term. Our mission is different. We have to develop a goal now for the next ten, 20, 30 years. We are focusing on three core businesses and plan to return to profitability this fiscal year.