The Private Life

By John Nathan

Houghton Mifflin. 347 pp. $26

The corporate workings and history of Sony Corp. would make a fascinating case study in organizational behavior, marketing and finance for MBA students. "Sony: The Private Life," by John Nathan, is informative reading for B-school students or anyone interested in a compelling, in-depth look at a company that's a household name around the world.

Sony is a fertile topic for corporate biographers but a risky one, given the nuances and multiple layers that combine to make its history all the more flavorful. Its storyteller faces considerable risk of succumbing to stereotyping of Japanese society and culture, which played a key role in the development of both Sony's founding titans and the company itself. The author even notes in the preface that "there is no language better suited for obfuscation than Japanese."

Nathan, a professor of Japanese cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, proves himself equal to the considerable task of reporting and writing about the "private life" of Sony and its executives. He suggests that Sony executives granted him unusually extensive access in part because he had previously produced a documentary video for the company. Nathan's familiarity does not compromise his ability to tell Sony's story with both surprising frankness and fairness.

"The Private Life," the book's subtitle, is accurate in two respects. Nathan tells the story of Sony's key founders in great personal detail. Perhaps more important, he weaves their life stories into the complex and fascinating rise of Sony as a global corporate power. In a sense, the private life of the corporation unfolds alongside the biographies of its leaders.

Nathan writes that "history's great entrepreneurs have been endowed with the capacity to perceive sharply things that are invisible to ordinary eyes." That statement sums up the powerful synergy created by the long partnership of Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka, who worked side by side for four decades to build Sony into a global marketing and manufacturing giant as it developed such innovations as the Walkman and other now-common household electronic products. From a beginning in 1946 as a small firm with eight engineers housed in a bombed-out Tokyo department store, Ibuka--the inveterate gadgeteer--and Morita--the brilliant marketer--drew on their individual strengths to make the company grow. As Sony moved from manufacturing rice cookers to making tape recorders and other electronic devices, from the earliest days its founders set their eyes on international business opportunities. Nathan writes that "the interior drama of Sony's growth modeled the Japanese intellectual and social experience in the postwar period as the country struggled to establish and maintain authentic individuality in its relationship to the West." The need to preserve Japanese sensibilities while competing in a global marketplace has long been a key dynamic at Sony, according to Nathan.

Even the name Sony is described as being the result of an internal search for a corporate title that could be "pronounced and recognized outside Japan." The name was much more catchy than "Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Co.," the literal translation of Sony's original name. "Sony" was Morita's melding of the Latin sonus, or "sound," and a Japanese pronunciation of the English "sonny-boy," a phrase he believed connoted youthful vitality.

Even though Sony grew rapidly, it was in many ways managed for decades as a "family" business. Key Japanese executives shared ties from school, marriage or family. Sons followed their fathers into Sony's employ, and company founders commanded the unquestioning respect expected within formal Japanese society.

Such traditional Asian social mores created challenges for Sony as it entered the U.S. market. The reserved, formal Japanese executives had to learn the freewheeling, brash ways of American business. By Nathan's account, Akio Morita was a quick study, learning to move with ease on the cocktail party and country club circuits where U.S. business is often conducted. Although Americans perceived him as gregarious and charming--in contrast to the stereotype of the reticent Japanese--even Morita had difficulty conforming to the ways of the West. The author goes to great lengths to point out that American businessmen had similar problems in understanding and dealing with the Japanese style of business; several talented American executives came and went at Sony as they first dazzled and, subsequently, ran afoul of their Japanese bosses.

Nathan concludes "Private Life" by describing the future that the company's current leader is attempting to create. Within today's corporation, Nathan writes, personal relationships "are not likely to figure decisively in the business decisions that determine Sony's performance." Quantifiable business success, not personal ties, will drive the new Sony. Indeed, Sony's president, Nobuyuki Idei, sounds much like any other CEO as he describes how the company must reinvent itself for the digital age. The author notes that only time will tell whether Sony "will continue to dazzle" as the company distances itself from its illustrious past.

Andre Jackson, business editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.