Once the epitome of Japan’s post-war success, its electronics firms are in crisis
TO SEE the problems facing Japan’s electronics companies, pop into one of the huge gadget shops in Tokyo’s Akihabara district (pictured above), the consumer-electronics capital of the world. Nine domestic firms make mobile phones. Then head over to the appliances section: five of the same firms offer everything from vacuum cleaners to rice cookers. Three of them make the escalators that carry you through the shop. In short, the industry has too many companies selling too broad a range of products that overlap with one another.
This “supermarket” strategy, in which each company has a hand in every area, worked well during Japan’s incredible economic boom between 1960 and 1990. “Made in Japan” gadgets, once cheap and flaky, ended up as world leaders in quality, humiliating America’s electronics industry along the way. Consumers at home and abroad snapped them up, generating vast trade surpluses and bitter trade tensions.
But the companies got bigger and bigger, priding themselves on their girth rather than their profits. Many now have over 500 affiliates, from travel agencies to restaurants. Old practices linger. It is not uncommon for employees to recite the corporate mission in the morning, or stop work in the afternoon as the company song reverberates across the cubicles. LaserDisc players never really caught on after being introduced in 1980, but Pioneer stopped shipping them only last month.
Having predicted full-year profits only three months ago, the giants are now forecasting massive losses. Sony expects an operating loss of ¥260 billion ($2.6 billion). Its Welsh boss, Sir Howard Stringer, is fighting to overcome internal resistance as he tries to restructure the firm. He wants to close factories and cut over 16,000 jobs including, controversially, some staff who expected lifetime employment. He has been trying to push through many of these changes since his appointment in 2005. But only now can he get his way. At a news conference on January 29th Sir Howard said Sony had been “putting off unpleasant decisions” and now had to “move in a hurry”. The same is true of Sony’s rivals.
Panasonic is expected to post a net loss of ¥380 billion loss for 2008. Hitachi and Toshiba, which make everything from nuclear reactors to the toasters they power, have been hit by the collapse in sales of microchips. Hitachi’s loss is expected to be ¥700 billion, and Toshiba’s ¥280 billion. Sharp, NEC and Fujitsu are also expected to lose money. In a damning sign of the times, Fujitsu’s bosses recently called upon the firm’s 100,000 employees in Japan to buy its goods. This week shares in Hitachi and NEC fell to their lowest levels for three decades. All this seems to have prodded the giants into action: all have announced job cuts and factory closures of extraordinary brutality by Japanese standards.
Better late than never
Privately, senior executives have long known that their companies were in crisis. But like Sir Howard, they faced strong internal resistance to change. Bosses were reluctant to cut projects initiated by their predecessors to whom they owed their jobs, to axe superfluous divisions, or to abandon cosy relationships with trusted suppliers. With docile domestic investors and a network of friendly cross-shareholdings, there was little outside pressure to restructure. Besides, samurai believe it is better to fight to a tragic and noble end than to surrender (which, in the corporate world, is equated with being acquired).
There were signs of change in December when Panasonic agreed to buy a majority stake in Sanyo Electric for around $9 billion. Struggling Sanyo had been whittled down by three banks that had bailed it out three years earlier (including a foreign one, Goldman Sachs). Panasonic gets Sanyo’s respected battery and solar technology, but must still “throw out the sinking trash,” in the words of one banker. The pity is that no one expects the deal to signal further consolidation. Panasonic (called Matsushita until it adopted its best-known brand as its corporate name last year) had great difficulty combining two of its divisions in 2004. Bringing Sanyo into the fold will be even harder.
Instead of consolidation, companies have been pursuing a strategy of “internal M&A”, in which business units are shut down or sold to other firms, so that each company ends up more focused. Fujitsu, for example, hopes to unload its loss-making hard-disk business, but it recently took full control of a joint-venture to sell computers as part of a push into computer-related services. Sony, which is concentrating on media technology, sold its “Cell” chip unit to Toshiba, which is specialising in semiconductors. Sharp and Pioneer have formed an alliance to unite their LCD and audio technologies.
This process will intensify as companies make deeper cuts. But will it be enough, given that domestic demand for electronics is shrinking fast and foreign rivals are taking market share elsewhere? South Korea’s Samsung and LG in televisions, and China’s Haier in home appliances, threaten to do to Japan what Japan did to America, by producing high-quality products at low prices.
The long-term answer, Japanese bosses believe, is to move into clean technologies such as solar panels and electric-car batteries—new areas where Japanese firms are already strong. The government’s new stimulus package reintroduces a subsidy for green technologies to encourage such a shift. With the exception of the South Korean conglomerates, few other firms have the research-and-development resources to compete in these areas. But the Japanese companies’ size is also a disadvantage. Investors who want to bet on solar power or electric cars do not want to be saddled with rice cookers or restaurants. At last, it seems, the giants have realised this.