Sony Co-Founder Akio Morita Dies at 78

Nearly six years after suffering a debilitating stroke, Sony Corporation co-founder Akio Morita has died. One of the world's most charismatic business executives, Morita succumbed to pneumonia on Sunday, October 3, in Tokyo. He was 78.

The embodiment of the "new Japan," the tireless Morita nurtured a small startup electronics firm into the world's most widely recognized brand name. With only $500 in seed capital loaned by his father, Morita and his partner, Masaru Ibuka, set up shop in a war-ravaged Tokyo department store, making and selling kits to turn AM radios into shortwave receivers. In the intervening fifty-some years, Sony became one of the most dominant technology and entertainment conglomerates on the planet, with a strong presence in a wide variety of interconnected industries: broadcasting, computers, music, movies, audio, and video.

Morita had an almost prescient sense for new technology. In the early 1950s, Sony licensed the transistor from Bell Laboratories. The device was at the time only a laboratory curiosity, and Bell executives believed that it would have limited commercial applications. As is now common knowledge, the transistor and its large-scale relative, the integrated circuit, have transformed not only the electronics industry but the world as a whole. Sony's innovations include the transistor radio, the video cassette recorder, the portable cassette player, the Trinitron television, the compact disc, and, most recently, the Super Audio CD. Sony also made significant improvements to tape recording and amplification technology. More than 75% of the professional broadcast gear used worldwide is said to be Sony or Sony-derived. The company's influence is everywhere.

At a young age, Morita, the son of a wealthy brewer, became fascinated with his family's phonograph. He began experimenting with electronics during his early teens, and went on to study physics at Osaka Imperial University prior to World War II. During the war, he served as a researcher developing heat-seeking weapons for the Japanese Navy, where he met Ibuka. The partnership that emerged became the foundation for one of the world's great business empires, culminating in the acquisition of CBS Records in 1988 and Columbia Pictures film studio in 1989.

Despite his engineering proclivities, Morita's true genius was as a businessman. Sony was one of the first Japanese companies to build a factory in the United States, and the first to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, in 1970. Morita's nearly lifelong tenure at Sony paralleled Japan's rise to world economic power. He often served as an unofficial diplomat, easing tensions between US and Japanese industries. "He was truly a statesman par excellence in a business sense," said Mike Mansfield, former US Senator and ambassador to Japan. "Internationally, he did more for Japan in a business sense than anyone else in Japan."

The outspoken Morita was one of Japan's most widely recognized public figures, more famous than all the Prime Ministers who served during his time, and perhaps the only Japanese businessman to have attained celebrity status in the West. Last December, Time magazine designated him one of the 20th century's "20 most influential business geniuses." As adventurous in his personal life as he was in business, Morita moved his family to New York in the early 1960s to learn his major market firsthand, and took up high-risk sports like skiing, scuba diving, and wind surfing when in his 60s.

Morita was also an innovative economic theorist and author whose writings appeared in respected journals like the Atlantic Monthly. Many of his recommendations are only now being implemented in the wake of the recent Asian economic crisis. Among them: shorter working hours, more generous dividends for stockholders of Japanese companies, and reductions in government regulations. He was said to have enormous disdain for market research. "Our plan is to lead the public with new products rather than ask them what kind of products they want," he wrote in his autobiography, Made in Japan. With the recent introduction of its Super Audio Compact Disc, Sony is following Morita's philosophy to the letter.