The Foxconn-Sharp Alliance: Which Company Will Gain the Most?

Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn Group’s decision to become the biggest shareholder in Japan’s Sharp Corporation, with its purchase of a 9.88% stake for 66.9 billion yen (US$836 million) in March, was a wakeup call for the Japanese electronics industry. After years of mounting losses, companies like Sharp, Sony and Panasonic finally appear to be grappling with the malaise that has cost them their leading edge in consumer electronics. Confronted by record losses, the Japanese firms are beginning to reposition themselves to compete with the rising stars of Korean and Chinese manufacturing. Sharp’s alliance with Foxconn, flagship of the Hon Hai Group and the world’s largest original equipment manufacturer (OEM), may be a litmus test for other electronics companies seeking to regain their edge.

For Foxconn, the acquisition of its bigger stake in Sharp and its related 66.5 billion yen (US$831 million) purchase of a 46.5% stake in Sharp Display Products (SDP) mark a step toward a strategic shift from OEM manufacturing for big brand names like Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard to building its own brand name. SDP’s LCD plant in Sakai, Osaka, in western Japan had cut its output in half because it was losing money. The underused capacity will come in handy for Foxconn, which reported NT$3.45 trillion (US$120 billion) in sales in the year ended December 31, 2011, and is ramping up production.

LCD panel and TV maker Sharp, which announced sales of 2.46 trillion yen in the financial year ended March 31, 2012, had no choice but to turn to Taiwan’s Foxconn Group for its survival, analysts say. As Japan’s once mighty electronics giants rue the market lead lost to Korean companies Samsung and LG, they are bartering their technology and brand names in exchange for cash from rich Chinese and Taiwan companies. 

Unlike earlier Chinese acquisitions of Japanese electronics companies, such as Lenovo’s 51% purchase of NEC’s computer business and Haier’s takeover of Sanyo’s washing machine and refrigerator unit, Foxconn is interested more in Sharp’s technology and assets. Haier and Lenovo aimed to expand in Japan’s closed market by acquiring local brand names. Foxconn’s focus is on acquiring Sharp’s technology and in using its LCD factory to expand its own OEM business.

Sharp, which started out as an Osaka–based mechanical pencil maker called the Ever Sharp Co. in 1912, was desperate for a lifeline. It reported a 376.06 billion yen net loss in the financial year ended March 31, 2012, much higher than its earlier forecast of a 290 billion yen loss, due to low demand for LCD panels and LCD televisions and the toll the protracted appreciation of the Japanese yen has been taking on its cost competitiveness. “For Sharp, this is a financial deal rather than a technology deal. In terms of improving products and Sharp’s offerings to the market, it does not do much,” says Steve Durose, head of Asia TMT ratings for Fitch Ratings, based in Sydney. “What it does do is to strengthen Sharp’s balance sheet and take spare capacity out of Sharp’s production base.”

The deal calls for Foxconn to buy LCDs from SDP, raising its procurement up to 50%. Sharp, in turn, is giving up some of the less competitive parts of its business. Vertical integration is turning out to be a costly handicap for all the big Japanese electronics makers. “Sharp can no longer do everything on its own from R&D, design, production, procurement, sales and service. Sharp’s vertically integrated model has reached its limit. We would like to build a global integrated model with Hon Hai,” Sharp President Takashi Okuda told reporters in Tokyo.

A Different Agenda

Foxconn, which has about 90 factories globally and one million workers, had a different agenda for the deal. While Sharp is seeking to rationalize its business by concentrating on its competitive advantage in leading technology, Foxconn is moving toward more vertical integration, says David Hsieh, Taipei-based vice president for the greater China market at Santa Clara, California-based NPD DisplaySearch, a research and consulting firm for display-related industries.

Foxconn was founded by Taiwanese Terry Gou in 1974 as a maker of plastic parts for black and white television sets, and is the world’s largest OEM. However, it lacks its own leading edge know-how. It is one of the biggest manufacturers of LCD TVs but lacks panel technology. “Sharp has a lot of good display technology and some of the world’s most advanced technology, which will be very useful for Foxconn in targeting customers with high-end products,” says Hsieh.

Gou has been looking to tie up with Japanese electronics companies like Sharp for years. He told the Taiwanese magazine Jinzhougan (Business Today) last July that his company was negotiating with both Hitachi and Sharp. Gou appeared to rule out any possible alliances with Korean makers, saying, “there is a much higher success rate of tie-ups between Japanese and Taiwanese companies compared with [tie-ups] between Japanese and Koreans. Taiwan and Japan have close cultures and we trust each other.”

Sharp had sought help from its SDP joint venture partner Sony Corporation in weathering its cash crunch. But Sony, which has a 7% stake in the venture, also is suffering from massive losses. So, in an ironic turn, Foxconn, which makes LCD TVs for Sony, is now taking the controlling stake in SDP. Sony is keeping itscurrent 7% stake but is likely to leave the joint venture later this year. Foxconn also bought an LCD TV factory in Mexico in 2009 from Sony, to produce for the North American market, and another in the Slovak Republic in 2010 from Sony, which makes LCD TVs for Europe.

Although cash is the main motivation for joining with Foxconn, Sharp is also hoping the tie-up will help it compete against Samsung and LG. “This is a good example of an OEM … merging with a panel supplier to compete with other brands. The Japanese LCD TV makers like Sharp and Sony are facing huge financial challenges and have to reduce costs. So they are changing their set-ups from in-house manufacturing to subcontracting manufacturing. And Foxconn is their choice. They are now competing with Korean makers in the end market by purchasing their products from Foxconn,” Hsieh notes.

Sharp may also win new customers thanks to its links to Foxconn, which as an OEM supplies many different products such as PCs, laptops and tablets to several different companies, says Bob O'Donnell, a San Mateo, California-based vice president and an analyst on displays, PCs and tablets, for IDC, a US IT research company. “Sharp would be the preferred supplier for those products,” he says.

That’s all fine in theory, but the alliance is no guarantee that Sharp can regain its status as the leading LCD and LCD TV manufacturer. “Sharp faces a lot of challenges for selling its own-brand LCD TVs because their costs are so high, their overhead is big and the yen exchange rate is high,” says Hsieh. Sharp inevitably will have to downsize its TV and LCD factories around the world, perhaps shutting them down or selling them to Foxconn, just as Sony sold LCD TV factories, he adds. On the other hand, by using Foxconn as a subcontractor, Sharp could improve its cost competitiveness and sales, assuming it manages its marketing well.

The Achilles’ Heel: Marketing

Therein lies the key: neither Foxconn nor Sharp have distinguished themselves in terms of marketing in the sector. “Hon Hai does not have a marketing and sales capability, and the main reason why Sharp and the other Japanese makers are losing the LCD and LCD TV market to the Korean manufacturers is their weaker marketing,” says Tomoo Marukawa, a specialist on the Chinese economy and industry at Tokyo University’s Institute of Social Sciences. “Japanese makers such as Sharp did not try hard to market and sell in emerging markets such as China, Vietnam or India, while Samsung and LG, which are latecomers for LCD technology and LCD TVs, did strong marketing and sales efforts in emerging markets,” Marukawa notes. He adds that the Japanese electronics makers unwisely rested on their laurels, believing that if they were selling well in Japan and taking a bigger share in the U.S. market, dominant shares in other markets would follow without much effort. 

Clearly, that strategy is not working. Samsung became the No.1 LCD TV maker in terms of shipments in 2006, replacing Sony. In 2009, LG displaced Sony as No. 2. As early as 2005, Samsung and LG became the No.1 and No. 2 makers of LCD technology, nudging aside Sharp, which held the market lead until 2004. Samsung had a 26.3% market share for flat TVs, including LCDs and plasma TVs, in the 4th quarter of 2011, up 18% from a year earlier. It is followed by LG Electronics at 13.4%; Sony at 9.8%; Panasonic at 6.9% and Sharp at 5.9%, according to NPD DisplaySearch. As for LCD shipments for TV applications, Samsung is No.1, with a 27% market share, followed LG Display with 26.6%; Sharp, with 8.7%, ranks No. 5; and Panasonic, with 4.2%, No.6. Two Taiwan makers, Chimei Innolux and AUO hold 16.9% and 15.2% shares, respectively, ranking third and fourth. 

These trends are taking a toll on the bottom lines of the Japanese manufacturers, whose home markets are in the doldrums and exports none too robust. Sony reported a 456.66 billion yen net loss for the fiscal year ended March 31, slightly below its forecast for a 520 billion yen loss, and Panasonic reported a record 772 billion yen annual net loss, slightly better than its forecast for a 780 billion yen loss.Meanwhile, the Korean companies have the advantage of being light on their feet in aggressively going after markets both old and new. “Samsung is owned by Mr. Lee Kun-hee, his other companies and his family members. So it is practically ‘his’ company. Samsung can make quick decisions. For electronics industry products, with their short product life cycles, making quick and right decisions is key,” says Choong Y. Lee, a professor of marketing and management at Pittsburg State University, who moved from South Korea to the U.S. 30 years ago.

Korea’s Cultural Edge 

With their huge bureaucracies and obsession with consensus, Japanese companies are slow to make decisions and slow to make investments, Lee points out. For example, Samsung made huge investments in the chip industry in the 1990s and 2000s — moves that, at the time, Korean experts and economists thought were too risky. But by 2005, Samsung had become the world’s second-largest semiconductor maker. Japanese manufacturers NEC, Toshiba and Hitachi dominated the market as the top 3 in 1990s. Not anymore.Toshiba now ranks fourth. NEC, Hitachi and Mitsubishi Electric Corp. merged their DRAM (Dynamic Random Access Memory) business, setting up Elpida Memory in 1999. It was ranked 15th in 2011 before declaring bankruptcy in February. NEC and Hitachi merged their other semiconductor businesses with Mitsubishi Electric in 2003, setting up Renesas Electronics Corp., which now ranks 5th

In an age of consolidation and fast product cycles, the centralized Korean decision making model is an advantage, agrees BenjaminCavender, an associate principal and senior analyst on the electronics sector at the China Market Research Group, based in Shanghai. “Korean companies have a lot of flexibility and they can make things happen pretty fast. People at the top have a lot of decision making power, and they do not necessarily have to spend a lot of time talking to a board of directors or going to meetings for months, so it is possible to execute quickly,” Cavender says. 

The Japanese manufacturers do a good job of product testing and development for their home market, adds Cavender. “The problem is that they take that model and use it for everywhere else.” Samsung and LG are doing a better job of providing what international markets want. “They need to be thinking of what other markets are doing,” he says. Put another way, they are managing with too much control at headquarters and too little attention paid to what their people in the U.S. and China are telling them about what they need to do to be successful overseas. “Samsung and other Korean companies are all focused [globally]. I think that Japanese tend to focus on the Japanese domestic market and a little bit on the U.S. and Western Europe, but Samsung is much more globally focused,” says O’Donnell of IDC.

Will Sharp manage to regain its dominance in the LCD and LCD TV markets? Its new panel technology, called the IGZO or indium gallium zinc oxide panel, provides much sharper images and has applications for smart phones, tablets and slim notebooks. “The future of the TV industry lies in smart TVs or connected TVs or computer-like intelligence built into TVs. So there are a lot of opportunities for TV makers,” O’Donnell notes. 

To stay in business, Sharp needs to incorporate some aspects of Foxconn’s efficient production model, experts advise. But even that may not be enough, says Cavender. “I do not think that Sharp is in a good position right now. I do not think that it is going to be enough to save them. It has lost a lot of ground to the Koreans.”

Another potential game changer would be for Sharp to mass produce panels for Apple TVs. “Even if Apple TVs may be competing against Sharp TVs, Sharp’s survival depends on whether SPD will become a TV panel mass production factory,” says Ryoji Nakagawa, a professor of international relations and China IT industry specialist at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. If the iTV goes to market in the next year or so, and Apple uses the IGZO panel, Sharp would benefit greatly, Cavender says. “But it is a big if, because Apple is always looking for alternative suppliers. Apple will choose whoever has the best quality and best production rate,” he says. 

The iTV option may prove illusory, Fitch suggested in an April 9 analysis entitled “A Virtuous Cycle for Samsung’s Operations.” “The potential of Apple’s much talked about iTV could threaten Samsung’s TV market share over the medium term. However, we expect it will be difficult for Apple to ignore Samsung when selecting what display panel to use in this potential TV product for the same reason that Apple currently purchases its core chips and display panels for the iPhone and iPad from Samsung,” the report said.

Apart from such strategic issues, Sharp and Foxconn will need to learn to live together in this marriage of convenience, integrating two quite different corporate cultures. “Sharp is very technology-oriented and we can say that they are good engineers but not so good at doing business. Foxconn has some technology, but mostly their technology is in assembling. It is very aggressive in its business expansion and its scale is very large,” says Lee of Pittsburgh State University. The one major similarity in their management styles is that both companies tend to have a very closed structure that is not open to outsiders. In general, Japanese companies have not shown themselves to be very flexible or willing to change their mindsets, even after more than two decades of economic decline.

“From the business perspective, the Sharp and Foxconn tie-up makes sense. But we do not know if it is going to be happy marriage,” Lee says. Japanese companies have shown little foresight in anticipating or even in reacting to consumer preferences. “Foxconn may be able to make Sharp more cost effective. If they can do that, I think that Sharp has a chance,” said Cavender. “My concern with Sharp and a lot of these Japanese companies is that they tend to have a very closed management structure, so it is very difficult for outsiders to give advice.”

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