The ex-CEO of Japan's disgraced Olympus Corp attended what he called a tense but civilised board meeting on Friday with the directors who had sacked him, and said all hoped the firm could avoid being delisted over the scandal engulfing it.
But Michael Woodford, still an Olympus director despite being fired as CEO a month ago and blowing the whistle over the accounting scam, said there had been no talk of him returning to lead a clean-up of the once-proud maker of cameras and endoscopes.
We had a constructive and honest exchange, Woodford, a Briton, told about 50 reporters and TV crews that had waited for him to emerge from Olympus's central Tokyo headquarters.
There is clearly a shared desire that the company's not delisted, added a calm and jovial Woodford, back in Japan for the first time since fleeing the country immediately after his October 14 sacking.
Olympus had fired Woodford, a rare foreign CEO in Japan, alleging he had failed to adapt to Japanese culture and the company's management style. Woodford says he was axed for questioning dubious merger and acquisition payments.
Woodford later said in a group interview that the directors at the meeting had sought to be civilised, but tension was in the air. There were no handshakes -- and no apology, he added.
There was a tension in the room, but there seemed to be an understanding that it was in no one's interest to raise the temperature, he said. They didn't shake my hand and I didn't offer mine. We said good morning and goodbye.
The 51-year-old freckle-faced Briton had left Japan after his dismissal citing concerns for his safety, amid speculation that organised crime was involved in the scandal.
Olympus first denied any wrongdoing, but later admitted it had hidden investment losses from investors for two decades and used some of $1.3 billion in M&A payments to aid the cover-up.
TOP PRIORITY: AVOID DELISTING
Woodford said after Friday's board meeting that the top priority was for Olympus to meet a December 14 deadline for filing its financial statements for the six-months to September -- after which, he added, current management should go.
The priority is that we re-present our accounts on the 14th of December which is a prerequisite that the company can remain tradeable, Woodford said.
The 92-year-old company would be automatically delisted if it misses the December 14 deadline, though the Tokyo Stock Exchange might still delist the firm, depending on the scale of its past misstatements or if a link is found to yakuza gangsters.
A third-party panel appointed by Olympus to look into the accounting scam said this week that it had not yet found any evidence of involvement by organised crime.
The board meeting followed news on Thursday night that two Olympus directors and an internal auditor blamed for the scandal had quit and that the current management was ready to step down once the firm's recovery was on track.
But Woodford wants the rest of the board to go as well, and soon. He said after the meeting that current president Shuichi Takayama should stay until December 14, but that changes could start thereafter.
Backed by some big shareholders, Woodford has repeatedly said he is willing to reclaim the top job and lead a clean-up.
Woodford also said Japanese authorities probing the scandal, whom he met in Tokyo on Thursday, wanted to talk to him again.
Tokyo police, prosecutors and regulators have launched a rare joint probe of the scandal, which has revived concerns about lax corporate governance at Japanese firms.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Britain's Serious Fraud Office are also looking into the affair.
Olympus shares have rallied over the past two weeks on speculation that it will escape delisting and be able to save its core business. They soared as much as 25 percent on Friday and last traded around 14 percent higher. The stock is still trading at about half of its pre-scandal level.
Today's rise is just a continuation of those willing to take a risk to make a profit, buying what they think is an oversold share, said Fujio Ando, senior managing director of Chibagin Asset Management.
It's too early to make conclusions about what will happen to the company. The investigations are just beginning, and the management situation is still unclear.
(Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Mark Bendeich)