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Toshiba enters new chapter with sale of memory unit

The conglomerate now needs a growth driver to replace its mainstay

Toshiba aims to sell its chip memory operations to a team led by Bain Capital by June 1.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- With a key deal out of regulatory limbo, Toshiba can leave the worst of its financial troubles behind and begin building a new growth engine to replace the chip memory unit, its top earner.

Chinese authorities have finally granted approval for the Japanese electronics conglomerate to sell the unit, and it plans to do so by June 1, the company said Thursday. An international team of buyers led by U.S. private equity firm Bain Capital, which will become the top shareholder, will pay roughly 2 trillion yen ($18 billion), of which Toshiba will keep around 1.45 trillion yen. Toshiba will also retain a roughly 40% stake that is expected to keep earning about 67 billion yen per year.

South Korean memory maker SK Hynix will also contribute financing, while U.S. computing companies Apple and Dell will get preferred stock. Japanese optical product maker Hoya will take a roughly 10% stake. Toshiba will also work with other participants on issues like adding production capacity, seeking to compete with market leader Samsung Electronics.

Besides paying down some 700 billion yen in debt and returning capital to shareholders, Toshiba aims to "channel much of the large capital infusion into fields with strong investment returns and achieving growth," recently appointed CEO Nobuaki Kurumatani said at a Tuesday earnings conference. The company is narrowing its list of potential targets and aims to start investing this year.

Toshiba is rebuilding itself around new core segments of energy systems and infrastructure. Acquisitions in fields like air conditioners and elevators seem promising, one analyst at a securities firm based outside Japan said, adding that the company may also reorganize by turning listed group companies into wholly owned subsidiaries.

But those fields are crowded, and Toshiba lacks the scale and profitability to compete on the world stage. It currently makes a roughly 2% operating profit margin on sales, while international rivals like General Electric and Siemens boast double-digit margins. Japanese compatriot Hitachi's is around 8%.

To compete abroad, Toshiba would likely need to quickly reach the 10% range, but that will be difficult without the memory unit, which generated about 90% of operating profit. While the conglomerate is expected to keep generating steady profit, no new cash cow is in sight.

Operating profit for the year through March came to just 64.1 billion yen, down 17.9 billion yen year on year, with the memory unit removed. With Westinghouse Electric off its balance sheet, the energy systems segment took a loss of 14.8 billion yen, as headwinds blew against fossil-fuel energy worldwide.

The infrastructure segment brought in about 48 billion yen, roughly on a par with the 47.3 billion yen from the storage and electronic devices unit, Toshiba Memory excluded. Down the road, Toshiba will focus the semiconductor segment more on automobiles, including power chips for electric and other vehicles.

The conglomerate has seeds that could grow into new businesses, including lithium-ion batteries, where Toshiba boasts strong lifespan and stability, and logistics robots. But those have yet to be built into income streams.

Toshiba also remains on the hook for liabilities, including those from a liquefied natural gas export facility under construction off the U.S. state of Texas, the Freeport LNG project, from which it has contracted to buy large volumes of fuel. The market for the gas has cooled unexpectedly, and Toshiba is having trouble finding buyers. The company is also looking to sell its money-bleeding PC business.

Reforming corporate governance also remains a concern. "It is vital to strengthen our transparency, internal communication and oversight capabilities," Kuramatani said.

Indeed, Toshiba's massive debts piled up during a long chain of scandals and missteps, beginning with improper accounting and followed by massive losses at U.S. nuclear power unit Westinghouse Electric. The Japanese company's net worth turned negative, forcing it to correct the balance by the end of fiscal 2017 or face an automatic delisting from the Tokyo Stock Exchange. In February 2017, the conglomerate made the painful call to sell Toshiba Memory.

Its memory business partner, Western Digital of the U.S., sued to block the sale, but the companies eventually patched things over. Chinese authorities also halted the deal as the government, which is working to cultivate the domestic semiconductor industry, balked at South Korean memory company SK Hynix being among the buyers.

The deal remained in flux on the Chinese side even after Japanese, American and European authorities gave the green light. The delay led Toshiba to weigh alternatives, including a public offering for the memory unit.

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