German Tapped to Lead Japan's Olympus as CEO

Kaufmann will lead Olympus’ expansion in the med-tech field, ensuring the company adapts to clinical needs and requirements.

Olympus Corp. via AP

TOKYO (AP) — Japanese medical equipment maker Olympus said Friday it has named as its next chief executive Stefan Kaufmann, a German who has worked for two decades at the manufacturer once known for old-style photographic cameras.

Kaufmann's appointment will take effect in April, pending board approval, said Tokyo-based Olympus Corp. It said Kaufmann will lead Olympus’ expansion in the med-tech field, ensuring the company adapts to clinical needs and requirements.

Founded in 1919, last year Olympus handed over its traditional camera-making business to Japan Industrial Partners, an investment firm. It now focuses on medical technology such as endoscopes, tubes with tiny cameras that doctors use to see inside the human body.

The company said Yasuo Takeuchi, its current chief executive, will become its chairman.

Olympus made headlines a decade ago when another foreign chief executive, Briton Michael Woodford, was fired after he raised questions about millions of dollars in dubious payments. The company later admitted the money was a cover-up for huge investment losses.

At that time, Woodford's case was seen as an example of how Japanese companies had a hard time dealing with foreign managers, and vice versa. Critics said his treatment also highlighted how insular Japan Inc. was failing to live up to professional ethics standards.

Kaufmann is a director, executive officer and chief administrative officer at Olympus with experience in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

It is still relatively rare for a non-Japanese to take the helm at a Japanese company. About 7.3% Japanese companies are headed by foreigners, compared with 33.7% in the United States, according to Tokyo-based consultant Cissoko and Co.

Kaufmann said he was aware of potential risk as a foreigner dealing with Japan and so Takeuchi and he were a team to make sure he gets support in what he called “any cultural roles.”

In an online group interview, Takeuchi and Kaufmann said Olympus had turned a “new chapter” since the accounting scandals of a decade ago, and now its governance was solid.

“We are a new Olympus,” Kaufmann said.

In a handful of cases, foreign leadership has been judged a success. That includes Belgian-born Jean-Marc Gilson's role at Mitsubishi Chemical Group, and Frenchman Christophe Weber at Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., although the numbers are gradually growing, said SOURCE.

In a case where things ended badly, Carlos Ghosn, a French-Brazilian of Lebanese ancestry, was sent by French automaker Renault SA to help revive its ailing partner Nissan Motor Co. Ghosn led a spectacular turnaround but was arrested on various financial misconduct charges in late 2018. He fled to Lebanon in late 2019. He says he is innocent.

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