Newswire

UPDATE 3-Japan's Honda names Fukui as new president

(Adds comments from news conference, more background)

By Chang-Ran Kim

TOKYO, April 22 (Reuters) - Honda Motor Co, Japan's second-biggest automaker, on Tuesday named senior managing director Takeo Fukui as its new president, replacing Hiroyuki Yoshino.

A change at the top had been rumoured for some time since Yoshino has been at the helm for well over four years, the usual tenure for a president at Honda.

Fukui, 58, currently heads Honda's research and development unit, which often provides the president.

"It's no surprise given that Mr Fukui has been a central figure in shaping the way the Honda programme is right now," said Christopher Richter, an analyst at HSBC Securities.

"I doubt if we are going to see any big changes at Honda as a result. The main challenge for Fukui is guiding Honda while there are concerns about the U.S. market."

Analysts also said they would be watching to see what the new president does about the company's under-performing domestic operations.

Honda has been zooming past its rivals in the key U.S. market but its sales in Japan are down almost nine percent so far this year, compared with strong growth at other top car makers.

"There's still a lot left to be done -- too much to mention," Yoshino, a 40-year veteran at Honda, told a news conference.

But he said he was confident in Fukui's ability, citing his broad experience both at home and abroad.

"He's tough and decisive," Yoshino said.

Asked about the timing of the handover, Yoshino said he wanted discussions to begin soon over Honda's medium-term plans beyond 2005 and that he believed the next president should be involved from the start.

Yoshino, 63, will remain at Honda as director and adviser.

For his part, Fukui said he would work to solidify Honda's global network by bringing operations in the key North American, Chinese and other Asian markets up to full speed.

Fukui served as president of the company's U.S. production unit, Honda of America Manufacturing Inc, between 1996 and 1998.

He has also worked in the area of motorcycle racing, devoting almost a decade to Honda's racing success, including the maker's first 500 cc class world championship in 1983.

He will have to work hard to measure up to his predecessor.

Under Yoshino's leadership, Honda launched a revolutionary manufacturing system that enables more flexibility and which has become a key part of its strategy in competing against bigger rivals.

The automaker has also made leaps in environmental technology, including the introduction of two gas-electric hybrid vehicles and the world's first marketable fuel-cell vehicle.

The change at the helm will take effect after ratification by the board following a shareholders' meeting in late June.

In early afternoon trade, Honda's shares were down 2.08 percent at 3,770 yen, in line with the benchmark Nikkei average . (Additional reporting by David McMahon, Yuko Inoue)