For Japanese technology giant Toshiba Corp., Atsutoshi Nishida is a different type of president.
Many of Toshiba's chiefs have been engineers. Nishida, 61, who took over as the company's president and chief executive in June, was pursuing a doctorate in the history of German political thought when he decided to join Toshiba in 1975. Whereas most Toshiba executives started their careers in Tokyo, Nishida was hired from an affiliate in Tehran.
And in a company in which presidents largely have been plucked from the division that makes power-generating equipment -- historically Toshiba's most prestigious unit -- Nishida's main experience was in Toshiba's smaller personal-computer business, which he turned around twice.
Now Toshiba, like many of its Japanese rivals, is turning to a new sort of leader. In the past, Japanese manufacturers thought the most important quality for their executives was a deep knowledge of their main operations. Now, they are reaching out to people like Nishida who have shown they know how to manage.
"I think the weight has to shift to a business-management style that puts the emphasis on management, and globalization is playing a huge part in that," says Nishida, a chain smoker who often is in the middle of six or seven books, from detective novels to economics tracts to science tomes.
The slow move toward professional managers at Japan's engineer-driven electronics makers comes as the companies install a new generation of leaders amid the double pressures of heightening competition and more demanding investors. Sony Corp. and Sanyo Electric Co. also got new chief executives this year; Fujitsu Ltd. and NEC Corp. replaced their chiefs in 2003.
In many cases, the new leaders are quite different from their predecessors. Sanyo chose as chief executive a former journalist and corporate outsider, Tomoyo Nonaka. And Sony, using a new corporate-governance format under which many top-level decisions are overseen by the company's outside directors, tapped its chief U.S. manager, Howard Stringer, to be its new chief executive officer.
Toshiba has had a similar governance format in place since 2003, and Nishida became the company's first president chosen under that system. His main attraction, analysts say, was likely his skill in turning around Toshiba's loss-plagued personal-computer business in 2004.
"He thinks more quickly and is more logical than other executives so far," said Merrill Lynch electronics analyst Hiroshi Yoshihara, who this month published a report titled, "Will New President Be Toshiba's Savior?" (Yoshihara's answer: We don't know yet.)
Nishida says his main task will be getting Toshiba to grow faster.
For the past few years, for example, the electronic-devices division, which makes semiconductors and displays, has seen sales rise an average of about 1.3 percent a year. Nishida wants to boost that rate to an average 8 percent annually in the four years through March 2008.
Similarly, he is targeting a minimum of 7 percent average annual sales growth in the next four years in the digital-products division that makes televisions, PCs and DVD players. For the past three years, that division has grown an average of 3.6 percent a year.
With fierce competition from electronics rivals -- many from lower-cost manufacturing nations such as China -- Toshiba must be able to both slash costs and boost profits by selling high-end, high-quality goods.
"The paradigm has changed quite a lot, and we have to go for both" volume sales of less expensive goods as well as sales of higher-end products with fatter profit margins, Nishida said.
Although Nishida has released few specifics on exactly how he is going to proceed, his turnaround of PCs can provide some clues.
Nishida cut costs by standardizing his products, halving the number of basic computer configurations offered by Toshiba to 12. He also turned to outside manufacturers to produce 60 percent of Toshiba's PC units, up from 20 percent that were outsourced previously, and shifted the company's personnel and money to making a few high-end models. As a result of those steps, the computer business swung to a profit in a year.
Nishida said he hopes to apply some of that speed to other Toshiba businesses as well. In Toshiba's loss-plagued TV-making operations, for example, he said the company must distinguish between the kinds of models where costs could be cut drastically and those where Toshiba has something of value to add -- such as those that will use a new Toshiba technology called SED, or surface conduction electron emitter display. Toshiba and Canon Inc. are investing in an SED-panel factory scheduled to open in 2007.
Yet Nishida warned that, although raising profits and shareholder returns is important, he has to balance that with the interests of his employees and customers. Nor should investors have too-high expectations of just how much and how fast the company will transform.
"Unlike an American company, we don't change strategy or policies overnight depending on who's president," Nishida said. "We'll try to watch the trends and get ahead of them. But we can't fall behind."