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Sun 15 Nov 2009 04:00 AM

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Steve Jobs, the ultimate challenge awaits you

It's what many in Tokyo think, but few will say: Japan Airlines needs a Carlos Ghosn, says William Pesek.

It's what many in Tokyo are thinking, but few will say: Japan Airlines Corp needs a Carlos Ghosn.

Asia's biggest airline is furiously seeking debt-forgiveness from lenders and a fourth state bailout since 2001. If JAL were a country, it would need an International Monetary Fund rescue and shock therapy to stay aloft.

Ghosn is the brash Brazilian who slashed excess capacity, costs and workers at Nissan Motor Co. He helped the previously unprofitable company post record earnings two years after his arrival in 1999.

He became a cultural icon, the subject of comic books and music in Japan.

A corporate caped crusader is exactly what the hapless JAL needs as it struggles with mounting debt and pension liabilities. It's time to get radical and hire an outside chief to shake things up once and for all. Finding a Ghosn of JAL's own would delight shareholders.

Here are five model leaders that Japan might think about as it decides what to do with this commercial zombie.

Steve Jobs: No one believes Japan will let the beleaguered carrier fail. Yet JAL could use some of the Apple Inc CEO's uncanny business acumen. It's devoid of the unconventional leadership for which Jobs is known. JAL's strategy is to borrow, fight change and muddle along between bailouts.

Richard Branson: Cajoling fresh capital and exacting change will require a seriously charismatic salesman - someone like the Virgin Group Ltd chairman. Few in the industry have been more innovative and splashy. Branson is already engaged in shocking Japan's heavily regulated aviation industry.

Virgin is part owner of AirAsia X Sdn, which also is partly owned by Southeast Asia's biggest discount airline, AirAsia Bhd.

There is no budget travel in Asia's biggest economy and AirAsia X's plans to begin flying from Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo next year will electrify things. Branson could even co-run JAL with AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes, 45, another maverick who is pumping new energy into a staid business - and making money.

Michael O'Leary: JAL needs more than money. It needs a radical shift in mindset and a strong vision for where it wants to be in five or 10 years. Ryanair Holdings Plc's CEO did as much as anyone to revolutionise European travel.

The low-cost model that O'Leary uncorked is the business equivalent of the genie in the bottle. Once it's out, you can't get it back in.

Granted, Japan's network of airports makes it difficult to emulate Europe. Also, JAL, which was privatised in 1987, isn't always allowed to run itself. It suffers from an Amtrak-like problem where it services unprofitable routes at the behest of government officials. In Japan's case, it's to prop up rural airports built with public money.

Bobby Valentine: This being Japan, loose talk could backfire. Valentine should know; the only baseball manager to lead teams to championship games in the US and Japan was shown the door last month by the Chiba Lotte Marines.

It didn't matter that Valentine was highly successful. Or that he had a street, a beer and a burger named after him in Japan. Valentine's crime was being an outspoken critic of Japan's baseball system and a thorn in the side of those favoring the status quo.

OK, so an American baseball sage is hardly the kind of person who could take over a major Japanese company and turn it around. The point is what Valentine represents, and here it's worth mentioning Howard Stringer.

It's not that foreigners are smarter. Japan has its fair share of corporate visionaries. It's just hard to see a Japanese person doing what the Welsh-born US citizen did at Sony Corp.

Since becoming chief executive officer in 2005, Stringer has moved to cut 16,000 jobs and shut factories. While Sony's share price has yet to reflect Stringer's handiwork, he's doing what his predecessors wouldn't.

Lloyd Blankfein: The Goldman Sachs Group Inc CEO has, for better or worse, become capitalism personified. JAL should channel a bit of his ideology.

The idea that market forces should dictate how companies work still seems foreign in many Japanese boardrooms.

That's why the corporate raiders of our day are salivating over buying Japanese companies. It's not only to fix an entire business culture, but to profit from the process of streamlining corporate jewels.

Japan's economy has long been as much about socialism as capitalism, and that's fine. JAL is a listed company, though, and it's time to run it as such. No matter who takes the reins, a little of Goldman's greed - especially the long-term kind - might go a long way.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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george 10 years ago

carlos ghosn is lebanese born in brazil