In 2005, the Tokyo–based Sony Corporation tapped Welsh–born naturalized American Howard Stringer (born 1942) to lead the company, making him the first foreign chief executive hired to oversee the electronics giant. A native of Wales, Stringer moved to the United States to pursue a career in television, became a citizen and ended up president of the CBS Broadcast Group. After a stint with the Sony Corporation of America—focusing on the company's motion picture and music operations—Stringer was chosen to lead its overseas parent company. Before Stringer, Sony had a history of hiring only Japanese executives for the top spot.
While the move surprised many corporate analysts, those who were familiar with Stringer believed he would be successful at integrating Asian and Western business models. Former co–workers describe Stringer as a highly gifted executive and praise him as an intelligent, approachable and modest manager who knows how to institute tough, bottom–line decisions while simultaneously listening to employees. “Howard has more charm than a stadium full of people,” former CBS colleague and filmmaker Peter Davis told the New Yorker's Mark Singer. “He's clearly very shrewd, but he never seems to be being shrewd.”
Emigrated to United States
Stringer was born February 19, 1942, in Cardiff, Wales. His mother, Marjorie Mary (Pook) Stringer, was a teacher and his father, Harry Stringer, served as a squadron leader in Britain's Royal Air Force, seeing active duty during World War II. Because of his father's military career, Stringer moved a lot. The first four years of his life were spent in Wales, but by the time Stringer was 11, he had lived in seven houses in several cities. When he was nine, Stringer attended a small public school in eastern England and earned a reputation as the teacher's pet, irritating his classmates. In turn, they teased the skinny, pre–adolescent Stringer. Looking for a way to escape, he applied for scholarships to several schools and was accepted by the Oundle School, an independent boarding school north of London.
Writing in the Oundle Society Newsletter, Stringer described the transformation that occurred in his life after he earned a scholarship to the elite school. “Oundle, of course, had its ups and downs, but the day I walked into my first dormitory, sat on the bed, munching” a cookie, “knowing that I didn't have to watch my back and that I was going to get the best education possible, was, along with my father's return from the war, the happiest day of my childhood.”
After graduating from Oundle, the 6–foot–3–inch Stringer attended Oxford University's Merton College, where he was captain of the rugby team. During his Oxford years, Stringer befriended a number of U.S. students who were studying there as Rhodes Scholars and began fantasizing about life in the United States. Stringer graduated from Oxford in 1964 with a degree in modern history, then set sail for New York City in early 1965 with $200 in his pocket. He eventually landed a job as a log clerk for the popular CBS variety program The Ed Sullivan Show. Stringer's duties included gathering the mail and logging caller comments. When viewers phoned in after the Beatles appeared on the show, Stringer put his British accent to work and pretended to be George Harrison as he answered calls.
Fought in Vietnam War
Not long after landing in the United States, Stringer received draft papers. By the mid–1960s, the Vietnam War was in full swing and the United States was ramping up troop support in South Vietnam. At first, Stringer thought there had been a mistake. He told the London Independent's David Usborne that he wrote then–U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy a letter that said, “Look, I've been here for four months and you want me to die for you? Don't you think that's a little premature?” He soon learned that U.S. law permitted resident aliens to be drafted.
Stringer reviewed his options. He considered returning to the United Kingdom but figured he might never be allowed back in the United States if he dodged the draft, so he quit his job and reported for duty. From 1965 to 1967, Stringer served in the U.S. Army, spending just under a year in Vietnam. As Stringer was leaving the war zone, Viet Cong machine gunners hit his transport plane as it sped down the runway. The plane was able to make it to safety and Sgt. Stringer returned home with five medals, including a U.S. Army Commendation Medal for meritorious achievement. Whenever Stringer is asked about his war service, he downplays his awards. “You get some medals for simply showing up,” he told the Guardian's Jane Martinson. “And I was actually in charge of medals.”
Moved Through Ranks at CBS
After returning from the war, Stringer found his way back to CBS, becoming a news–radio production assistant for WCBS radio in New York. In 1968, Stringer joined the CBS election coverage team as a researcher and swarmed through 26 states in the eight–month run–up to the election. Next, he became a researcher for CBS Reports. Launched in 1959, CBS Reports was devoted to in–depth documentary reporting on the controversial issues of the day.
By 1976, Stringer had become executive producer of CBS Reports, working alongside chief correspondents Dan Rather and Bill Moyers. Stringer wrote, directed and produced a number of highly received investigative reports, including a 1974 feature on the Rockefellers, which won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary Program Achievement. Another segment, titled “The Fire Next Door,” provided the impetus for new housing regulations in New York City and captured a 1978 Emmy. In sum, Stringer won nine individual Emmy awards. He was also instrumental in creating several successful news programs, including “48 hours” and “CBS This Morning.”
In 1986, Stringer was named president of CBS News and in 1988 became president of the CBS Broadcast Group, which had just experienced its worst prime–time ratings ever and sat behind ABC and NBC in market share. Undaunted, Stringer set about the task of beefing up the network's offerings, courting Hollywood writers and producers for their ideas. In 1993, Stringer snagged David Letterman from NBC, giving CBS a late–night television ratings boost. These, however, were tenuous times at CBS as the network's tight–fisted owner, Laurence Tisch, tightened spending, cutting $30 million from the news budget and touching off a series of layoffs. Despite the cuts, Stringer moved CBS to the front of the network pack.
Stringer quit CBS in 1995 to become chairman and chief executive officer of Tele–TV, a telecommunications start–up that aimed to deliver interactive television and Internet service over the telephone lines. News anchor Dan Rather was quick to mention the void left behind by Stringer's departure from the network after so many years of service. According to the Washington Post's Tom Shales, Rather told colleagues, “We're losing a piece of our heart. Howard Stringer for 30 years has provided an important part of the fiber of CBS and CBS News in particular, as much with his attitude as with his immense creative abilities. Certain organs in an institution's structure can't be removed and randomly replaced. The heart of Howard Stringer is one of them.” The job at Tele–TV, however, was short–lived, as the venture folded around 1997.
In 1998, Stringer became chairman and CEO of the Sony Corporation of America, placing him in charge of Sony's film and music businesses. This arm of the Sony empire was not performing well, having recently written off $3.2 billion to cover losses at Columbia Pictures. In an effort to restore Sony America to profitability, in 2003 Stringer pieced together a 50–50 joint venture with the Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG) to create Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Inc., one of the largest music recording and publishing entities in the world.
He also orchestrated a merger with Metro–Goldwyn– Mayer—MGM. The 2004 deal was a coup for Sony, which outbid other entertainment companies vying to overtake the profitable film studio and gain access to its 4,000–film library that included the well–liked James Bond, Pink Panther and Rocky titles. Besides the business transactions, Stringer laid off 9,000 people. Soon, Sony America was performing well and in 2004, its film studio churned out the No. 2 movie, Spider–Man II, which anchored ticket sales and shored up earnings.
On the tails of his success at Sony America, Stringer was hired to become president of the Sony Corporation of Japan. “I thought about taking this job for well over a week because I knew that the reason I got the job was because it was in financial difficulties,” Stringer told CBS News in a 2006 interview on “60 Minutes”. “And so I knew that I would have to use every personal skill I had to persuade and cajole and convince that for the greater good of the company, we might have to do some tough things.”
When Stringer took over Sony in 2005, he was given the gargantuan task of reorganizing and reenergizing the company, which had seen its stock price tumble 75 percent in the preceding five years. While the company's film, music and gaming divisions were performing adequately, its electronics division had lost its dominance in the global market. For a number of years, Sony had been a leader in cutting–edge electronics. In the 1960s, Sony rolled out the must–have Trinitron TV and in the 1970s, the company unveiled the revolutionary Sony Walkman, a pioneer in the portable music player industry. But through the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sony electronics experienced lackluster sales. Sony's PlayStation faced tough competition from Microsoft's Xbox and its televisions struggled to compete with Samsung. In addition, almost every time Sony unveiled a new device, electronics upstarts in South Korea and China rolled out cheap knockoffs.
One of the biggest blows for Sony was the Apple iPod. Sony was slow to launch a competitive digital portable media player because executives worried such devices might cut into profits at Sony BMG Music. The company had plenty of music to market online but worried about piracy. As Sony scrambled to develop a secure download system to prevent piracy, Apple formulated the iPod and online iTunes store, launched the product and scored market dominance.
Faced Challenges at Work, Home
Stringer's first major crisis came at the end of his first year when Sony was forced to recall millions of its laptop batteries, which were prone to overheating and therefore posed a fire risk. The recall was a major setback for Sony's credibility. He also faced challenges from within the company. After a thorough review of assets, in 2006 Stringer announced a restructuring plan to shutter 11 production facilities and eliminate 10,000 jobs—or 7 percent of Sony's global workforce. For Stringer, this was a controversial move and went against the grain of Japan's job–for–life culture. In addition, Stringer faced a language barrier. When he first took the job, he tried to learn Japanese, but realized he would never be fluent enough to communicate effectively. Corporate meetings had to be bilingual, with conversations flowing through multiple translations.
Besides the trials at Sony, Stringer faced challenges in his home life after taking the job. While his family resided in England, he would stop by to visit them as he jet–setted around the globe. During one two–month period in late 2005, Stringer logged 60,000 airline miles flying between Tokyo, England, Boston, Toronto, New York, Beijing, Shanghai, New Delhi, Bombay, Los Angeles and San Jose. Back in England, he remained a virtual unknown, although he received the title of Knight Bachelor from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1999. That year, she “knighted” a number of people who had made a significant mark on the 20th century or who were projected to make a mark on the 21st century.
Stringer is one to continually foresee a future where Sony is able to merge content and electronics, creating interactive, on–demand personalized devices. He knows it will be a challenge getting there and knows he will have to tread carefully as he introduces change. But he remains optimistic. As Stringer told CBS News, “This is not a company on its last legs.”
Guardian (London), May 5, 2001.
Independent (London), April 28, 1999.
New York Times, March 7, 2005.
Times (London), April 24, 2004; September 24, 2005.
Washington Post, February 24, 1995.
“Senior Management: Sir Howard Stringer,” Sony, http://www.sony.com/utilities/printable.php?page=/SCA/bios/stringer.shtml (December 14, 2007).
“Sir Howard Stringer (Ldr 60) Remembers His Arrival at Oundle,” The Oundle Society Summer Newsletter, http://www.oundlesociety.org/Media/Download/1271/OundleSummer%2005.pdf (December 14, 2007).
“Sir Howard Stringer: Sony's Savior?” CBS News, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/01/06/60minutes/printable1183023.shtml (December 14, 2007).
“Stringer's Way,” New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/06/05/060605fa_fact1 (December 15, 2007).