News / Asia

Fired Olympus CEO Confronts Colleagues Who Ousted Him

Former Olympus CEO and President Michael Woodford talks to reporters in Tokyo, Japan November 25, 2011
Former Olympus CEO and President Michael Woodford talks to reporters in Tokyo, Japan November 25, 2011

A foreign chief executive who was fired by a major Japanese corporation after he publicized questionable acquisitions authorized by his fellow board members, says he would consider returning to the helm, if asked. Michael Woodford confronted the board of directors of camera and endoscope maker Olympus on Friday. The company is now the subject of investigations by authorities in Japan and abroad.

Just prior to Friday's board meeting, three executives of Olympus, including the company's former chairman, quit as directors.

After initially defending the actions of the executives, Olympus later acknowledged the trio colluded for two decades to hide losses from investors using inflated takeover costs.

Former Olympus CEO and President Michael Woodford, who remains a director, says Friday's board meeting "was a lot less tense" than he expected because the three executives did not attend.

"They wrecked the company by siphoning off money on all of this nonsense," Woodford said.

He says other board members have also been "contaminated" by the scandal.

"The directors know that they will have to leave to bring credibility and trust back to the board," he noted. "And if it's led by me or an eminent Japanese businessman then the company can move forward and be stronger. And that decision depends on the shareholders choosing it and me saying yes."

Some prominent overseas investors in the company have called for the British-born Woodford to be reinstated and for the removal of Olympus officials who were involved in the deals made before he became the company's president and CEO.

Woodford returned to Japan this week to speak with public investigators looking into the scandal.

Woodford recounted his dramatic dismissal in a Tokyo news conference Friday, noting how he was immediately asked to turn in his computer, mobile phones, and apartment keys and told to take a bus to the airport. He says he left Japan the same day, fearing for his safety.

But before leaving Tokyo, Woodford handed copies of internal company documents to a Financial Times reporter detailing the series of unusual huge payments to obscure entities that were made prior to him running Olympus.  

Woodford, who rose through the ranks of the company over a 30-year-period, says he is speaking out on behalf of the 45,000 employees of Olympus. He says the company can survive if its sticks to its core businesses because its engineering, research, development and manufacturing departments are strong.

Woodford says delisting the 92-year-old company from the Tokyo Stock Exchange would be a mistake unless it fails to submit its accounts by a December 14 deadline set by regulators, or a link to organized crime is proven.

Since the scandal erupted, Olympus' stock has wildly fluctuated.

Reports say the total investment losses from the questionable Olympus deals, dating back to the 1990's, may total as much as $1.3 billion.

The company set up an independent committee to investigate the accounts. It reported this week it uncovered no evidence of criminal activity. Others, including Woodford, say a forensic inspection of the company's books is needed before a conclusion can be reached.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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