Takanobu Ito – well known to petrolheads as the engineer behind the legendary Honda NSX supercar of the 90s - is to step up to the hot seat at the firm’s AGM in June, replacing the incumbent Takeo Fukui. And what a time to be taking over. On the face of it this seems like a poisoned chalice, what with the global economic meltdown and the fact that shelling out on a new car has suddenly become just about the only thing less desirable to most people than buying a new house.
Indeed, only a few weeks ago, Honda announced a four-month shutdown at its Swindon plant. But the firm is actually in relatively good shape – although given the state of the car biz globally, that’s like comparing a patient who’s ‘only’ in intensive care to one who’s on life-support. But it is the only one of the Japanese big three that still expects to make a profit this year, and its vital US sales are bearing up better than most.
The firm is also strategically well-positioned, thanks to a consistent focus on technology and engineering. Its refusal to get drawn into the marketing-driven SUV wars looks like a very smart one, now that demand for the gas guzzlers has dried up. Instead Honda has concentrated on its range of small, well-designed and fuel-efficient cars. Just the thing for a recession, in fact. It’s also a leader in hybrid technology, which along with fuel-cell power is expected to be a major focus for the firm’s next generations of vehicles.
However, there’s still plenty of bad news for Ito to deal with. For a start, the firm hasn’t had so much as a sniff of interest from any serious buyers for its F1 team (some analysts say it is this failure which has cost Fukui his job). And Honda’s modest size remains an ongoing problem – unlike many of its global rivals, it probably isn’t too big to fail.
Still, at least the appointment continues the long tradition of Honda being run by an engineer, right back to legendary founder Soichiro Honda, of whose ingenuity and forthright eccentricity the firm’s products still bear more than a trace. But although Mr Honda set a pretty high standard for those leaders who came after him, Ito probably won’t want to take all of the founder's dictums to heart. Here is a perhaps-too-frank Honda talking to MT way back in 1981, about his own reasons for stepping down:
‘I have lost my sex power. I won’t say I have lost all my sex, but I must admit that frequency of doing and recovery have not been the same as when I was young. Great leaders love sex, and I am not a great leader any more... Also, I can’t drink. Two cups of Sake is enough. Presidents should be able to drink more... Without sex power, drinking habits and work desire, I should quit the life of an entrepreneur’.
They don’t make them like that anymore...
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