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Foxconn's Gou prepares to explain himself at Trump's Christmas party

Tycoon blames strong economy and bad weather for slow progress on $10bn Wisconsin project

Foxconn founder Terry Gou speaks to reporters at Taipei Songshan Airport before leaving for the U.S.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- Foxconn founder Terry Gou is on his way to the White House Christmas party, where hopes to explain to Donald Trump why progress on his company's $10 billion display panel plant in Wisconsin has been "a bit slow."

The Taiwanese tech company's plant is the most high-profile foreign investment in the U.S. since Trump took office in 2016, and Gou has been keen to keep the project on track even during his own foray into politics.

"If I have the chance to talk to President Trump at the White House this week, I will tell him 'Mr. President, you are making the U.S. economy so good that I can't easily find talent,'" Gou told reporters at the Taipei Songshan Airport before boarding his private jet for a 10-day trip to the U.S.

Gou, who stepped down as chairman in June to run for president of Taiwan, told reporters he had received a formal invitation to attend the White House Christmas party this Thursday.

The tech tycoon -- who has since dropped out of the presidential race -- said he has also arranged meetings with "officials who oversee the tech industry" to talk about the ongoing trade tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Foxconn's Wisconsin investment came in answer to Trump's call for manufacturers to bring jobs back to the U.S.

Gou inked the agreement for the $10 billion project at the White House in July 2017, with the president looking on. Trump attended the groundbreaking ceremony in June last year, where he called it "the eighth wonder of the world" and hailed Gou as "one of the most successful businessmen in the world."

The initial plans for the project have changed significantly, however. Instead building a cutting-edge 10.5th-generation display plant, it decided to build a sixth-generation liquid crystal diode display plant due to oversupply woes in the display industry, as the Nikkei Asian Review first reported in May last year.

Foxconn signaled further changes at the beginning of this year, blaming the steep cost of manufacturing TVs in the U.S. But the company quickly reversed its position and said it would stick to its plans for a sixth-generation display facility after a "personal conversation" between Trump and Gou.

Even during his brief campaign for president, Gou did not neglect the Wisconsin project. In May, after announcing his candidacy, he flew to Washington to personally reassure Trump that the investment remained on track.

A follower of Taoism, Goud said the sea goddess, Mazu, had given him a sign that he should run for the presidency. However, he failed to win the nomination of the opposition Kuomintang and later decided not to run as an independent, though he remains active in politics.

The Wisconsin project, meanwhile, hit some unexpected road bumps.

Young Liu, the new chairman of Hon Hai Precision Industry, said in June that the Wisconsin plant would build not only display panels but also servers, networking products, data centers and automotive central controls.

Construction and recruiting progressed in the months that followed, and in October, Foxconn announced it had begun installing the roof of the display plant. The company plans to invite Trump to a ceremony next May that will mark the beginning of operations, multiple sources familiar with the matter said.

But meeting that timeline may prove challenging. Gou said he receives reports on the Wisconsin project every week and recruitment remains the biggest hurdle. Foxconn Vice Chairman Jay Lee has been giving speeches at U.S. universities to attract young talent, but those efforts have borne little fruit so far, according to Gou. "We want to recruit 15 biotech talents, but we have only managed to find five as of now."

Icy weather has also disrupted Foxconn's plans. "We previously planned to continue construction until Christmas, but we had to halt earlier, around Thanksgiving, because of snow," Gou said. "The weather here is suitable for construction only for seven months in a year. ... We didn't think of that factor when we evaluated the investment."

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