Why Nintendo chose Tatsumi Kimishima to be their new CEO and not Genyo Takeda or Shigeru Miyamoto

Kimishima

Today Nintendo Co Ltd. announced that, former Nintendo of America CEO, Tatsumi Kimishima will be the new CEO of the house of Mario. It’s an interesting decision, to say the least. Many people, including myself, thought that they were going to stick with Genyo Takeda who has been leading the company (together with Shigeru Miyamoto) ever since Satoru Iwata passed away.

Takeda would have been the obvious choice. He is the general manager of Nintendo’s integrated research division, and was, in that outfit responsible, for producing the Nintendo Wii. He also created the Punch-Out!! and StarTropics series. He is a hands-on kind of guy, just like Iwata was, and is credited to be the creator of both the analogue stick and the cartridge battery back which made it possible for NES cartridges to keep save data after the console was turned off (which was first used in Miyamoto’s The Legend of Zelda). Creations which are still very relevant today (could you imagine playing a 3D console game without the analogue stick today? Neither can I). Also just like Iwata, he grew into different management positions as the years went by.

Punch-Out StarTropics

Then why didn’t Nintendo choose Takeda? Well, there’s the language aspect, of course. As far as I know, Takeda’s English is not on the same level as that of Iwata (nor is Miyamoto’s, for the record), meaning that he probably wouldn’t put himself as much in the Western limelight as Iwata did with his Nintendo Direct series of announcements, meaning that in the eye of the beholder Nintendo would once again become this faceless Japanese giant that doesn’t speak your language, nor understands you… which, of course, wouldn’t be good for sales in the Western market. Also, in this respect, I expect that, for a company whose profits are quite dependent of its international successes, having a president who doesn’t speak the international language par excellence is a bit of a hard sell for shareholders as well.

One of Nintendo’s biggest current issues is that, while it has been doing quite well in Japan these last few years, it has been struggling to generate that same interest in the West, and especially in the Americas – although Amiibo are a huge success in the States. Choosing for a president and CEO with a similar track record as his predecessor and whom may have limited knowledge of the West and of the Western market, would probably not change anything to this situation.

Enter Tatsumi Kimishima whom was not only the CEO of Nintendo of America from 2002 until 2006, but whom has lived – and still lives – in the States for more than half of his life (he is currently 65). Unlike many of Nintendo’s other big names, Kimishima wasn’t with Nintendo from the beginning. He joined the company in 2000 after having worked for 27 years at Sanwa Bank of Japan where he was, among other, responsible for corporate planning and international business development. Also unlike many of Nintendo’s other big names, Kimishima didn’t start out as a developer. When he joined the company in 2000 he became the Chief Financial Officer for the Pokémon Company, after which he quickly became the president of Pokémon USA Inc. in 2001.

Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo Co., center right, speaks as Tatsumi Kimishima, managing director, listens during a news conference in Osaka, Japan, on Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014. Nintendo posted second-quarter profit that beat analyst estimates, helped by a weaker yen that boosted the value of overseas sales and demand for new games including Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart 8. Photographer: Yuzuru Yoshikawa/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Satoru Iwata; Tatsumi Kimishima

Kimishima will be a very different president than Iwata was or than Takeda or Miyamoto would have been. He’s more of a numbers guy, less of a hands on guy. That’s not necessarily a problem. Miyamoto and Takeda will still be there advising him in this respect – as can be learned from the press release – while he makes sure the shareholders are happy. Also, Kimishima probably knows more of the Western market than any other Nintendo employee from Japanese descent. That may be a good thing, but not necessarily either. One of the main reasons I love Nintendo is because their products are so different from what Western companies produce. On the other hand, if Kimishima finds a way to actually attract a bigger audience for Nintendo and still lets them produce these unique experiences, I’m all for it.

Will the appointment of Kimishima lead to a new golden age for Nintendo? It’s hard to say. For, one it’s hard for an outsider to judge what actual power the new president and CEO will have. What power remains with Miyamoto and Takeda after Kimishima becomes the new president and CEO. His knowledge of the Western market may indeed entice Nintendo to walk an new path, but given Kimishima’s age (65) it may well be that he is a transitionary president who’s there to fill in the void left by Iwata’s unexpected passing, until the next generation is ready to take over. Then again, what’s to stop Kimishima from ruling Nintendo for the next decade or so?

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Rest in peace Satoru Iwata

It’s a bit of a shame to only start talking about people who inspire you and have had such an influence on your life when they have already passed away, but I guess that’s just the way things go. The saying, you don’t really know what you have, until it is gone, really holds up I suppose.

Earlier this year my favorite author died, sir Terry Pratchett.

Saturday my favorite CEO died, mister Satoru Iwata of Nintendo.

It’s weird right? To talk about your favorite CEO? Oftentimes we talk about our favorite author, our favorite musician, our favorite actor, but not about our favorite CEO. Of course, this has to do with the fact that CEOs tend to be less visible to the general public than authors, musicians, etcetera.

Not mister Iwata. Every few months for the last few years he appeared in an online video in which Nintendo announced what we, the fans, the gamers, may expect from them in the coming days, weeks, months and years. This he did with a touch of humor. His stock phrase “directly to you” – accompanied by his typical hand gesture – has become a recurring theme in Nintendo Directs (what the videos are called) and a fan favorite.

Iwata direct

Iwata also appeared in the interviews he took with developers that created games for Nintendo platforms and which appeared on Nintendo’s website (i.e. the Iwata Asks Series) and he often gave interviews himself to game media. But of course, Satoru Iwata was not only my favorite CEO because he was visible. No, there’s many other reasons why he deserves that title.

For one, he taught me that CEOs do not have to be money grubbing a*****. They choose to be money grubbing a*****. Mr. Iwata never chose to be such a CEO. When Nintendo suffered its first loss since 1981 in 2012, he did not decide to restructure the company (which generally means “fire a lot of people”), no, he took a substantial pay cut, and humbly declared that the fault was his and that he would make things better. Which he did. The company today is as profitable as ever. If things went wrong, it was him who carried the weight. When costs needed to be cut, he looked at himself first (and the other high rank workers in the company) and not at the people who work for him on the floor.

Nintendo Co President Iwata bows during their strategy and earnings briefings in Tokyo

Also, Satoru Iwata was a CEO who knew the ins and outs of what his company was selling. He worked “on the floor” himself. He started out as a game developer, a programmer, at HAL Laboratory (a Nintendo subsidiary). He knew what it meant to create videogames. He knew what he was asking his people to do. He was also a very good programmer. He saved the cult classic Earthbound, which would never have released if it wasn’t for him reworking all of the code. He gave us Balloon Fight and helped on many, many Kirby games.

Maybe the best way to describe Satoru Iwata as a CEO and as a person would be to let him speak for himself:

On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.

Rest in peace Mister Iwata, and know that you have taught me that a company can have a heart when the heart of its president is big enough for two.