TOKYO -- Kunihiko Ohnuma, CEO of Hitachi Automotive Systems, isn't shy about his quest to transform his company into the "emperor" of electric and hybrid powertrains.
The gregarious computer engineer, who once worked on Japan's bullet trains, wants to use the supplier's traditional strength in electronics to boost sales of electric motors and related parts. And he sees prime opportunities to grow in North America as Japan stagnates.
Indeed, he is so bullish on both electrified drivetrains and the Americas that this month, he plans to begin trial production of hybrid vehicle motors at a new plant in Berea, Ky. Hitachi already supplies electric motors for the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.
Localized production of inverters, which change direct current from the propulsion battery into alternating current for the motor, will follow within two years. And the company plans to enlarge its suburban Detroit r&d center and add 100 people to its staff next year.
"Definitely, we need another expansion," Ohnuma, 67, said in a June interview at the company's global headquarters in Tokyo. "Without expansion in the Americas, there is no future for us. We are putting a lot of energy and resources into the Americas."
The strategy is part of Ohnuma's push to boost global sales 12 percent to 1 trillion yen ($9.84 billion) in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2016, compared with $8.76 billion in the fiscal year just ended.
By early 2016, sales to overseas customers should account for 60 percent of global revenue, compared with about 53 percent today.
Ohnuma cut his teeth at the Hitachi electronics group designing the computer system that runs Japan's iconic bullet trains. He took over as president of the conglomerate's automotive subsidiary in 2009 and brought his devotion to all things electronic with him.
Today, Hitachi Automotive is No. 20 on the Automotive News list of the top 100 global suppliers. Ohnuma's goal: Improve profitability and climb higher in the ranks by focusing on electric technologies -- in safety systems, fuel-efficient drivetrains and onboard telematics.
Hitachi Automotive wants to more than triple its global sales of hybrid motors, inverters and batteries to $981 million after 2016, from $294 million today, he said. Currently, the company produces enough systems for 80,000 vehicles a year.
"Hitachi has the motor, inverter, battery. So I would like to be emperor of the electrical world," he said, only half-joking. "We've just started. Wait two or three years."
Ohnuma emphasizes hybrid vehicle systems for a couple of reasons.
First, Hitachi is one of the few suppliers handling all three key components: the battery, inverter and electric motor.
"We combine all the engineering into one," he said.
Secondly, Hitachi has not aligned itself with a particular automaker, giving it a freer hand to court a wider range of customers.
"We are under no restrictions in having conversations," Ohnuma said, in a nod to Japanese rivals Aisin Seiki Co. and Denso Corp., the Toyota-affiliated megasuppliers. "Denso and Aisin are very good companies, but when they start talks, later on they always refuse to supply the latest technology because they have to ask Toyota whether they can or not."
Hitachi Automotive already supplies electric motors and inverters for the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and batteries for the Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid crossover. It sources the motors from Japan.
But after the new Kentucky plant opens this month, motors will be locally made. Output will go to General Motors and a new customer that Ohnuma declined to identify.
Ohnuma is bullish on hybrids because tweaking the standard internal combustion engine, with cylinder deactivation, fuel injection or turbochargers, goes only so far in eking out extra mileage.
"That's not enough to meet regulations of coming carbon dioxide reduction steps," he said. "Motors and inverters are becoming key."
Like other Japanese suppliers, it is looking to diversify its customer base and expand overseas as sales to Japanese carmakers in Japan stagnate. The Renault-Nissan alliance is Hitachi Automotive's biggest customer, accounting for 34 percent of its revenue. Revenue from Ford doubled over the four fiscal years ended March 31, 2013.
Hitachi Automotive finished construction June 27 of its third factory in Monroe, Ga. It will make electric power steering systems and variable displacement pumps, with production beginning in 2016.