LOS ANGELES - Lining up his own array of loyal, younger advisers, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. President Katsuhiko Kawasoe last week installed a new group of Japanese executives atop the company's U.S. sales and manufacturing operations. The changes are effective June 25.
Michio Yamashita, 64, who had been chairman and senior chief executive officer overseeing Mitsubishi's North American sales and manufacturing operations, has been politely window-seated to the post of executive adviser for the manufacturing arm. He had been in his job for less than one year.
Yamashita's duties have been taken over by Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America President and CEO Takashi Sonobe. Sonobe, 57, and Kawasoe are career friends, so insiders expect Sonobe to wield more power than Yamashita did.
'I think Kawasoe wanted someone who was effective over our sales organization, but who could have influence at the plant itself,' said a manager at the U.S. sales arm, who declined to be named.
Sonobe faces a tough challenge. Mitsubishi has written off $1 billion in losses on U.S. operations over the past three years. Although the flow of red ink has been stanched somewhat, U.S. sales are off 12.5 percent through March, and annual sales have not broken the 200,000 mark since 1994.
But Sonobe is no stranger to the U.S. market. Before being placed in charge of the U.S. sales arm last summer, he had been executive vice president of corporate planning for four years, basically the No. 2 spot.
Sonobe is a fast mover, too. Within three months of taking over the sales arm, he created the 'President's Council,' a group of top American and Japanese sales and credit executives that meets every morning.
Taking Sonobe's spot running Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America will be Hiroshi Yajima, 56, who had been executive vice president of corporate planning.
Although Japanese managers in America typically prefer to work behind the scenes as 'shadow executives' to their American counterparts, Yajima has already attracted attention and praise for his hands-on work at Mitsubishi.
'He knows what planning, marketing and product are all about, and how they have to work together. He'll be a good leader,' said a Mitsubishi executive who spoke anonymously.
At Mitsubishi Motors Credit of America, president Seichi Uo will return to Japan to become managing director of Mitsubishi Auto Credit Lease of Japan, a subsidiary of the parent company.
As in the case with Yajima, Uo's vacant post will not be filled, which means Chuck Tredway, executive vice president and general manager, will run things, although he will report to the sales arm's senior management.
'They're trying to flatten out the company. There will be closer communications links by not replacing those vacant positions,' a sales arm executive said.
At Mitsubishi's manufacturing operations in Normal, Ill., President and CEO Takahisa Komoto, 59, returns to Japan to become president of Pajero Manufacturing of Japan, a subsidiary that builds the Montero sport-utility.
The new President and CEO will be Mitsuro Ito, 58, who sits on the parent company's board and who was works general manager at Mizushima Motor Vehicle Works. Ito has made a career in manufacturing.