TOKYO - The appointment of Honda Motor Co. President Hiroyuki Yoshino to a top post at Japan's foremost business organization has raised speculation here that he may step down as the automaker's CEO in the next year or so.
That would be early. Yoshino took the reins at Honda in June 1998, replacing Nobuhiko Kawamoto, who served as president for eight years from 1990.
Yoshino, 61, has been named one of two new vice chairmen at the Federation of Economic Organizations, or Keidanren, a powerful lobbying organization somewhat akin to the Business Roundtable in the United States.
It is the first time a Honda executive has been appointed to the post. His appointment is effective May 25.
In parallel, it also is Honda's turn to provide the next chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association. That post, held by Toyota Motor Corp. Chairman Hiroshi Okuda, traditionally has been held by the chairman of either Toyota or Nissan Motor Co., but goes to Honda for the first time in May 2002.
The tenure of a Keidanren vice chairman is four years, while a chairman of JAMA serves for two years. If Yoshino takes the JAMA job, therefore, he would face two years of juggling two senior outside posts, beginning next year, in addition to his responsibilities at Honda.
Given that possible overload, the Nikkan Kogyo business newspaper editorialized last week, 'The countdown has started for a top replacement at Honda.'
The outside jobs would divert Yoshino from his CEO's responsibilities at a critical time for the automaker. Honda's mid-term plan, announced last May, calls for boosting worldwide vehicle sales by 500,000 units, to 3 million a year, in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2004.
'Given that target, I suspect Yoshino will step down,' said Yoshio Watanabe, an analyst at Mizuho Securities Co.
To be sure, Yoshino might not assume the JAMA post. Honda directors could assign someone else, such as Chairman Yoshihide Munekuni. At 62, he still is young enough to carry the burden of both positions.
'Who will be chosen from Honda for JAMA is uncertain,' a Honda official said last week. The executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that Yoshino's acceptance of the Keidanren post surprised many in the company.
If Yoshino were to surrender the presidency, an especially strong candidate to replace him is Takeo Fukui, the 57-year-old president of Honda R&D Co. Fukui is the only board member who meets an unwritten company requirement that the head of Honda must have served as president of the technology arm.