The surprise reversal of fortunes will put the British industrialist at the helm of Nippon Sheet Glass (NSG) - a group that, since its audacious purchase of Pilkington in 2006, has emerged as a global giant.
The appointment, which will be effective from June, breaks sharply from the traditionalist norms of Japan´s “old economy” manufacturing industry and marks a striking shift of attitudes. It comes as Japan itself is under fire from European Union trade chiefs and fund managers for its closed stance towards foreigners.
Unlike London and New York-listed companies, the ultra-conservative business community of Japan Inc has collectively promoted only a tiny number of outsiders to run its largest business empires.
Mr Chambers, 51, who declared himself a “Tokyo boy” yesterday, joins a much-scrutinised club of foreign company presidents in Japan. The clique consists chiefly of Carlos Ghosn, Nissan´s Brazilian-Lebanese saviour, and Sir Howard Stringer, the British-born president of Sony. Both men were appointed at moments of deep financial crisis in their respective companies.
Although Mr Chambers was invited on to the NSG board soon after its successful £2.2 billion bid for the British company, analysts assumed that he had hit a “bamboo ceiling” through which no non-Japanese could break.
Yet as the economic downturn bites into some of the group´s biggest markets, Katsuji Fujimoto, NSG´s outgoing president and future chairman, insisted: “This is not the moment to be dogmatic about selecting a Japanese manager to lead a Japanese company.”
Mr Chambers explained his promotion from chief operating officer as a natural effect of NSG´s post-acquisition structure. By buying Pilkington - a company nearly twice the size of NSG - the Japanese group was transformed from a domestically focused player with nearly 80 per cent of its business in Japan to an international one with operations in 28 different countries.
“It´s frankly not surprising that a lot of the global experience existed in the acquired company,” he said. The company now views Eastern Europe, where there is a shortage of glassmaking capacity, as a high-growth market, although it is doubtful that pre-Pilkington NSG would have exploited that.
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