Sony Corp is promoting Kazuo Hirai as the head of its consumer products unit, the company's biggest division, and CEO Howard Stringer said Hirai was in the lead to be his successor.

Welsh-born Stringer, 69, who serves as the company's chairman, chief executive and president, will retain his current positions, Sony said in announcing a realignment of the business.

It's a sign that Sony has exited the crisis mode that it's been in since the Lehman shock. It can now move on from talk of restructuring to growth, said Mitsushige Akino, chief fund manager at Ichiyoshi Investment Management Co Ltd.

Sony has been mulling a potential successor for Stringer, the first non-Japanese to run the consumer electronics company, who is expected to step down in 2013. In January he denied he was a candidate for the chairmanship of the BBC.

The board and I have talked about succession planning and this is the first step.We have not made a final decision, Stringer told a news conference Thursday.

This is an opportunity for the board to watch Hirai san and judge his performance. There may be other candidates, but he has a leadership position, Stringer said.

Hirai, 50, currently runs the firm's network products and services division, which includes Sony's games business as well as newer ventures such as music and movie streaming services.

In his current role, Mr. Hirai has successfully led the turnaround of the games business, Sony said in a statement.

Under Stringer, Sony has slashed jobs and sold off factories to improve margins but analysts have said it will take more than streamlining to help Sony catch up with rivals including Apple Inc,, Nintendo and Samsung Electronics.

Sony also announced Thursday that it would realign its business into two core groups, one covering consumer products and services and accounting for 60 percent of the company's turnover, to be led by Hirai.

The other division, covering business to business areas such as semiconductors, batteries and other key components, will be led by Hiroshi Yoshioka.

Yoshioka san has an opportunity to make a lot of money in his group, so the race isn't over, Stringer said.

Sony shares shed 0.9 percent in a broader market down 1.5 percent.

Hirai, who will become executive deputy president on April 1, is a fluent English speaker known for his presentation skills, which were on display at the unveiling of Sony's new handheld games device at a splashy Tokyo ceremony in January.

Operating profit more than doubled in his network products and services division in October-December last year, but was outweighed by losses on TVs, resulting in a fall in Sony's overall profit.

Stringer took over as chairman and CEO of Sony in 2005, and added the role of president in 2009.

(Editing by Anshuman Daga)