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May 27, 2017

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Sony chief eyes spin-off from 'all sorts of angles'

TOKYO -- The head of Sony told shareholders Thursday the company's board was studying from "all sorts of angles" a proposed plan to spin off part of its profitable entertainment arm, but said it would not be rushed into a decision.

U.S. billionaire Daniel Loeb, who says his hedge fund Third Point has amassed the largest stake in Sony, last month made the call to hive off and list up to 20 percent of the unit, which includes a music label and Hollywood movie studio.

Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai told the firm's annual investor meeting in Tokyo: "This is a really important proposal not only for today's Sony but for the future of Sony.

"The board will reach a decision by discussing and analyzing Third Point's proposal from all sorts of angles ... we want to take our time and get necessary information from outside," he told the meeting at a Tokyo hotel.

Sony, which has reportedly sought out investment bankers to study the plan, had been largely tight-lipped after Loeb's initial foray was detailed in a hand-delivered letter to Hirai in mid-May.

The outspoken investor, who has a reputation for aggressively trying to push change at companies he has targeted, is not believed to have been at Thursday's meeting, which was packed with a record attendance of nearly 11,000 shareholders.

Among them was Keisuke Ohira who described Loeb's idea as an "interesting proposal."

"It's a good thing if shareholders' voices are part of management decisions," said the 28-year-old.

But another investor thought Sony should avoid selling off part of a key moneymaker.

"The entertainment business has great potential," said the 78-year-old man who identified himself as Kawano, adding that "software is as important as hardware."

Last month, Sony said it would continue "constructive dialogue with our shareholders as we pursue our strategy." But it added that the entertainment businesses were "not for sale."

Hirai has resisted previous calls to break up the electronics giant, which has struggled for years as it bled money from its television unit and other consumer gadgets.

On Thursday, Hirai appeared to soften the firm's position, but called the entertainment division "a very important business for Sony's growth strategy."

Loeb has suggested Hirai serve as head of the board of the proposed business, while retaining his spot at the helm of the overall group.

The U.S. investor argued that spinning off the entertainment division would make managers more accountable and help improve profitability. He also offered his services on Sony's board, pointing to his firm's large stake in the maker of Bravia televisions and PlayStation game consoles.

Analysts said Loeb's soft-touch approach appeared to mark a dramatic shift from previous, mostly unsuccessful, forays by foreign investors who have tried to push through change at Japanese firms.

Shareholder activism in Japan is not firmly entrenched like it is in Europe and the United States, and the country's cloistered corporate sector remains deeply suspicious of overseas private equity firms.

Sony has limped back to an annual profit after four years in the red, mostly due to the weak yen and selling a string of assets including its Manhattan headquarters.

On Thursday, Sony's Tokyo-listed shares slipped 0.09 percent to 2,013 yen by the close. The stock has more than doubled since the start of the year after dipping below 1,000 yen for the first time since the era of the Walkman.

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