Olympus risks foreign backlash with new board line-up

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TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s Olympus Corp proposed a new board of directors on Monday in an effort to recover from a $1.7 billion accounting fraud, but the line-up could face a hostile reception from foreign investors when it goes to a shareholder vote.

A staff member is silhouetted on a projector screen displaying a logo of Olympus Corp before a news conference in Tokyo February 13, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Yuriko Nakao

The maker of cameras and medical equipment said it had nominated an insider, executive officer Hiroyuki Sasa, to become president and former banker Yasuyuki Kimoto as chairman, subject to approval at its April 20 shareholders’ meeting.

Kimoto was formerly an executive of Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp, Olympus’s main lender and a unit of Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group Inc (SMFG). He is now president of Japan Research Institute, an SMFG think-tank.

That falls short of major foreign shareholders’ demands for fresh, outside talent in these two key positions and could also stoke fears among some investors that Olympus’ creditors will use the chairman’s role to call the shots in the boardroom.

“According to Japanese tradition, you must have strong support from your main bank, and I think they needed (Kimoto) to be able to ask for the continuous support of Mitsui Sumitomo,” said Yuuki Sakurai, head of fund manager Fukoku Capital.

“We know that some foreign investors are not in line with those ideas, but having said that, they have one man that is from Olympus and one who is from the supporting financial side, so to the Japanese point of view that is a good balance.”

Olympus noted that the new 11-person board would include six outside directors. It called a news conference at 0830 GMT.

NEW EQUITY?

U.S.-based Indus Capital has said creditors such as Sumitomo Mitsui Banking could push Olympus into a big, dilutive sale of new equity, which would be a comfort for lenders but not necessarily for existing shareholders.

Olympus’s balance sheet has been weakened by the fraud, used to hide investment losses from its investors for 13 years before it was uncovered in October. But Indus and a few others believe it can recover without a big new share issue.

Sasa had worked as head of development as well as marketing at Olympus Medical Systems Corp, the group’s medical equipment business which accounts for most of its profits. Olympus dominates the global market for diagnostic endoscopes.

“For Olympus’s revitalization, I think profitable growth through long-term vision centering on the medical equipment business is indispensable,” Sasa said in a statement.

The new team’s views on equity tie-ups will be in focus.

Olympus has been considering alliance offers to shore up its finances, with the likes of Japanese electronics firms Sony and Fujifilm believed to be among suitors.

But current President Shuichi Takayama reiterated this month that any tie-up decisions must wait until after the April shareholder meeting. He has also suggested that going it alone without seeking outside capital was an option.

Shares of Olympus, which have lost nearly half their value since former chief executive Michael Woodford blew the whistle on the scandal, closed down 3.3 percent at 1,373 yen ahead of the announcement.

(Reporting by Chris Gallagher and Mayumi Negishi; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Alex Richardson)

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