Norio Ohga: Executive who introduced the compact disc and helped transform Sony into a global entertainment empire

By Martin Childs
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:44

Norio Ohga was a bidding opera singer and conductor who joined the Sony Corporation as a consultant but rose to become its chairman and chief executive. It was his love of music and keen ear for high-quality audio that would define his career and shape the development of the compact disc and transform and propel the Japanese electronics manufacturer to the forefront of technological excellence, establishing Sony as a global software and entertainment empire.

With a fastidious attention to detail that was feared and revered across the company, Ohga had been known to cancel a product launch because he did not like the shape of a button; he had a love of design and wanted all devices to be eye-catching. His design philosophy was to make devices not merely smaller but also more intimate, creating a one-to-one relationship between people and machines.

Ohga led the Sony Corporation in various roles from 1982-95 and during his tenure some of his decisions, such as the $3.4bn purchase of Columbia Pictures, were criticised as unwise and costly. But Ohga's focus on music, films and video games as a way to enrich the electronics business helped create Sony's success. In 1998 he accredited their success to the fact that "We are always chasing after things that other companies won't touch".

Norio Ohga was born in the coastal resort of Numazu, a city in eastern Shizuoka Prefecture, about 75 miles south-west of Tokyo, in 1930. He suffered from pleurisy as a child and was exempted from factory work during the Second World War. Instead he took singing lessons and learned the piano.

Following the end of the war, he studied at Tokyo's National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he gained a reputation for his forthright views. Having already complained formally to Yamaha for their poor-quality pianos but still receiving and declining a job offer from them, Ohga sent a letter of complaint to the management of the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation (later renamed Sony) about the quality of their tape recorders which would change his life for good.

Although taken aback, the founders, Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita, met him and immediately sensed in Ohga the makings of a leader, and someone whose expert knowledge of sound and electrical engineering could benefit the company. In 1953 they made him a consultant while he finished hisfour-year course at the Berlin University of the Arts. Ohga, however, still intended to become a baritone opera singer, but in 1959, while accompanying Morita on a US business trip, he was persuaded to join the company full-time.

Henceforth Ohga worked tirelessly to enhance product quality, functionality and design, while also revolutionising the company's marketing and advertising, paving the way for the launch of a succession of innovative products. Ohga passionately advocated the creation of gadgets "attractive in the eyes of consumers", a philosophy that came to represent Sony's approach to design and engineering, and was crucial to the company's worldwide success.

Initially, Ohga headed Sony's tape recorder division, which transformed the business with the launch of the Walkman personal cassette player in the late 1970s. This revolutionised the way music was listened to, but Ohga wanted to go a stage further in terms of sound quality, and Sony teamed up with Philips to co-develop the Compact Disc Digital Audio system.

Ohga recognised the potential of the compact disc and drove Sony's initiatives to introduce the format. It was he who pushed for a disc 12cm in diameter, because it provided sufficient capacity at 75 minutes to store all of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which he believed should be heard in its entirety without interruption; it also allowed the user to play and replay their music by remote control.

Sony launched the first CD in 1982, a month after Ohga became president of Sony. Within five years CDs overtook LP sales in Japan, with a domino effect around the world. Sony's first portable CD player was introduced in 1984, and Ohga's specifications led directly to the development of the DVD video disc, with which Sony was also closely involved, and the high-definition Sony Blu-ray system.

Ohga had become head of design, introducing the sleek matte black finishes and other touches that would style a generation of products and give them the "Sony look". He was an executive by his 30s, a rarity in a Japanese company, but the debonair Ohga shattered all the stereotypes of the staid Japanese executive, being an accomplished pilot and yachtsman; he was always immaculately turned out, his hair neatly slicked back, and was never short of something to say. His persona added a touch of glamour to Sony's image at a time when Japan harboured global ambitions.

Ohga and Morita were considered the perfect partnership; they shared a deep understanding of the importance of brand management, and took every opportunity to remind employees to think first and act later, emphasising that every one of their decisions had an impact on the Sony brand. One of Ohga's favourite expressions was, "The four letters of the SONY brand are our greatest asset". His efforts to spread the spirit of that message among every Sony employee were critical in enabling the company to become the global brand it is today.

Although Sony has encountereddifficulties in recent years, fallingbehind in flat-panel TV sales to rivals such as South Korea's Samsung, and in digital music players to Apple, it has remained a brand that continuesto exude an image of sophistication and quality. Sony also remains unique in having a Hollywood studio (now known as Sony Pictures), a music recording business (CBS), and the blockbuster PlayStation and PS2 video-games units that Olga helped develop, though some critics note that the company has never fully realised the benefits of owning both electronics and entertainment divisions.

Whatever the shortcomings, Sony's chairman Howard Stringer concluded: "By redefining Sony as a company encompassing both hardware and software, Ohga-san succeeded where other Japanese companies failed. It is no exaggeration to attribute Sony's evolution beyond audio and video products into music, movies and game, and subsequent transformation into a global entertainment leader to Ohga-san's foresight and vision."

While at Sony and in retirement (from 2003), Ohga pursued his love of music and took the baton a few times as guest conductor of symphony orchestras. He compared leading a company to conducting an orchestra: "Just as a conductor must work to bring out the best in the members of his orchestra, a company president must draw on the talents of the people in his organisation." Ohga may have given up his opera career after falling asleep during a production of The Marriage of Figaro, but he continued to promote classical music in Japan by supporting young musicians and concerts.

Ohga received many awards, including the Japanese Medal of Honour with Blue Ribbon (1988), the Grand Cordon (1st Class) of the Order of the Sacred Treasure (2001) and France's Legion of Honour.

Norio Ohga, businessman: born Numazu, Shizuoka, Japan 29 January 1930; married 1957 Midori; died Tokyo 23 April 2011.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments