TOKYO - Honda Motor Co. last week chose an apparent caretaker to succeed Nobuhiko Kawamoto as president in June.
Hiroyuki Yoshino, a respected engineer and a longtime close associate of Kawamoto, is not expected to make many changes.
He also is not expected to hold the post very long.
At 58, Yoshino is well above the 41-to-54 age range of prior Honda presidents when they took the job, and he is only four years younger than Kawamoto, who is retiring at age 62. That is two years past Honda's mandatory retirement age of 60.
Yoshino acknowledged that his appointment seems to go against the grain of Honda's culture.
'I don't necessarily think I'm too old, but this company needs young leadership,' Yoshino said last week at the press conference announcing his nomination. He then added that age is a matter not just of years but also of such qualities as flexibility and a willingness to seek new challenges.
Yoshino, who will become president after confirmation at the Honda shareholders meeting in late June, appears to be cut from the same cloth as Kawamoto. Indeed, his career has closely paralleled Kawamoto's, with stops at many of the same posts that traditionally have been the training ground for future presidents.
After graduating from Tokyo University with a degree in aeronautical engineering, Yoshino joined Honda R&D Co. in 1963, the same year Kawamoto did. Honda R&D is the engineering heart of Honda, responsible for car development and manufacturing technologies.
Yoshino also headed Honda's efforts in Formula One and other motorsports for two years, and he led Ohio-based Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. from 1988-92, a period when the factory complex more than doubled in size and work force.
Despite Yoshino's impeccable background, some industry analysts voiced surprise at his appointment.
'Generally, people were expecting a much younger management to replace Kawamoto. I personally thought one of the managing directors would take over,' said Kaoru Kurata, auto analyst for Goldman Sachs (Japan) Ltd.
'Three or four years ahead, maybe one of the managing directors will take his place,' she said.
Among the ranks of managing directors, those often mentioned as possible presidential material include:
Kentaro Kato, president of Honda of U.K. Manufacturing, who is 49.
Takeo Fukui, head of Honda of America Manufacturing Inc., 53.
Michiyoshi Hagino, who since last June has been a key lieutenant of Yoshino's in overseeing new-product development. He is 54.
Auto analysts and Japanese auto journalists have been critical of Kawamoto for a sometimes dictatorial management approach that failed to develop a clear line of succession.
That is one of the few points on which Kawamoto can be faulted, however.
When he became president in June 1990, Japan's so-called Bubble Economy had just burst, and the nation was headed for its worst recession since World War II. Auto sales in Japan were in a tailspin. With the American economy also soft, Honda's profits suffered.
Kawamoto went on the offensive. He boldly declared that Honda would nearly double its Japan sales by 1998 to 800,000 as a way to reduce the company's dependence on the U.S. market. Analysts and competitors were openly skeptical.
He did it. With a string of hot models, Honda's Japan sales in calendar 1997 totaled 801,782, while worldwide sales rose 11 percent to 2.3 million.
Honda's share of the Japan market in the fiscal year ended March 31 rose to a record 12.2 percent, well ahead of Mitsubishi's 10 percent and Mazda's 4.8 percent share.
At the same time, profits have been buoyed by the weak yen. Honda has not yet released figures for the fiscal year just ended, but the company says its consolidated net income will top last year's record $1.78 billion.
With Honda on a roll, analysts see little need for Yoshino to mess with success.
In recent years, analysts said, Kawamoto has set out the vision and indicated market segments that Honda needed to enter. Yoshino, meanwhile, managed a product-development effort whose efficiency is the envy of the industry for its multiple use of a small number of platforms, effective commonization of parts and speed to market.
'They've established a plan for the next several years,' said Peter Boardman, auto analyst at UBS Securities in Tokyo. 'Yoshino is going to implement that strategy.'