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Sharp rides Foxconn's coattails as it looks to double TV sales

Aggressive marketing takes China by storm, but is not without risks

Hon Hai Precision Industry Chairman Terry Gou, right, and Sharp President Tai Jeng-wu. Gou is spearheading Foxconn's TV offensive in China, while Tai wants to double yearly sales of TVs.

TOKYO/TAIPEI -- After orchestrating Sharp's dramatic turnaround under Taiwanese parent Hon Hai Precision Industry, company president Tai Jeng-wu wants to double annual sales of the Japanese maker's television sets to 10 million units.

Sharp might be able to hit its target in the current business year, Tai said in late August at Berlin's IFA, a major European consumer electronics trade fair, in which Sharp participated for the first time in five years.

The first major Japanese consumer electronics maker to be acquired by a foreign company, Sharp sold 5.43 million TVs in fiscal 2016, one-third the amount of 2010 when the company was peaking.

Observers took note after Tai announced his ambitious plan, which initially was set for fiscal 2018, as he has delivered on previous pledges while stewarding Sharp's climb back into the black.

Tai enjoys the full support of Hon Hai Chairman Terry Gou, along with the market clout that the electronics giant, better known as Foxconn, wields.

Foxconn recently stormed the market during Singles Day, China's huge annual online shopping spree on Nov. 11, offering TVs at sharply discounted prices through Alibaba Group Holding's Tmall online retail site. For example, 50-inch 4K TVs were going for 2,499 yuan ($376) and 45-inch LCD TVs for 1,799 yuan, less than half of what similar models cost in Japan.

Chinese makers irked

Gou is spearheading Foxconn's disruptive TV offensive. On Nov. 6, he visited Zhang Jindong, chairman of Chinese retailer Suning Commerce Group, owner of Japan's Laox chain of discount consumer electronics, at his Nanjing head office to propose a heady alliance.

Hon Hai Precision Industry Chairman Terry Gou, right, and Sharp President Tai Jeng-wu

Gou's strategy is simple: He wants to "sell TVs wherever possible." Foxconn is now selling to real estate companies, which in turn install the TVs in condominiums that are up for sale.

The chairman's aggressive marketing strategy has riled China's discount electronics makers, who are complaining about Foxconn's cutthroat pricing, an industry official said.

To add fuel to the fire, Sharp's fiscal 2016 financial statement released in June showed a relatively unknown company, Zhengzhou Fulianwang Electronic Technology. According to media reports, the company is a subsidiary of Hongfujin Precision Electronics, a joint venture under Foxconn.

The statement showed business totaling 58.2 billion yen ($519 million) between Sharp and Zhengzhou Fulianwang for about six months after Foxconn took over Sharp. Whether all the business involved LCD TVs is unknown, but Sharp logged 89.9 billion yen in TV sales in the first half of fiscal 2016, according to its biannual sales report -- a noticeable increase since its acquisition.

All in on TVs

Foxconn recently kicked off a plan, code-named Tianhu, to boost TV sales. The plan involves mobilizing the group's massive 1-million strong workforce.

Zhengzhou Fulianwang's website, Flnet, online since November 2014, was formerly a portal for in-house commerce within the Foxconn group. Under Tianhu, many Sharp TV sales are now being channeled through Fulianwang.

While not elaborating on this, a Sharp executive did say that his company's LCD TV sales in China are increasingly going through Foxconn. With Fulianwang playing a key role in Tianhu, "Sharp never goes into the red" as it does not have to maintain inventory, the executive said.

But it remains to be seen if the plan is sustainable. Trying to increase market share through cut-rate pricing is a "double-edged sword," said Yasuo Nakane, a senior analyst at Mizuho Securities.

Foxconn covering risks at Sharp "may prove highly successful in the long run, but will likely be unprofitable [for Foxconn] for the time being," Nakane said. "Prices set lower than those of Chinese brands may damage the value of the [Sharp] brand," he added.

Sharp's Tai seems to support this assessment, saying that the Tianhu plan is a "long-term strategy," ignoring any near-term benefits. 

Push for 8K

Foxconn typically prioritizes gaining market share before gradually introducing high-end, low-volume products. Evidence of this strategy can be seen in Sharp's October release of the world's first 8K LCD TVs in China.

"More than half our 60-inch and larger TVs will be 8K by fiscal 2020," said Kazuhiro Kitamura, deputy head of the company's TV system business.

Sharp's 8K LCD TV is shown at Ceatec Japan, a home electronics and information technology trade show.

The 8K resolution is 16 times that of full high-definition TVs. Because Sharp lags South Korea's Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics in OLED TVs, the company looks to regain its edge by pushing next-generation technology.

While praising Japanese workers, Gou noted that top management at Japan Inc. has problems. As if to demonstrate the difference between his management style and that of his Japanese counterparts, the hard-charging president ploughed roughly $10 billion each into constructing LCD plants in China and the U.S. barely one year after Foxconn took over Sharp.

This is in line with the ultimate goal of the Tianhu plan, which is to vertically integrate production of Sharp 8K TVs in China and the U.S.

Risky proposition?

Foxconn began building a series of huge plants in China in the 1990s and has become the world's largest contract manufacturer of electronics. It involves itself closely with clients from the product development stage, setting up production systems in advance to ensure prompt delivery, even on a massive scale.

Its practice of horizontal division of labor has attracted well-known clients such as Apple and has shaken the foundations of manufacturing.

But at present, Foxconn is struggling. The company said on Nov. 14 that it logged a consolidated net profit of 21 billion New Taiwan dollars ($698 million) in the July-September period, down a whopping 39% from a year earlier and the worst results for the period in six years.

The bad news was blamed on difficulties in manufacturing the iPhone X, a herculean effort that required an increase in labor and other costs. This dealt a serious blow to Foxconn, which relies on Apple for more than 50% of its business.

Shifting to a vertical business model may be the answer for its TV business, but it is not without risks. Noting that Foxconn's consolidated operating cash flow peaked at nearly $8 billion per year, Mizuho's Nakane warned that the investment in the U.S. and China -- which dwarfed the company's annual cash flow -- is a "big gamble" even if Foxconn receives subsidies.

Under the current business plan, Foxconn may be leading the newly rejuvenated Sharp down a familiar path. Katsuhiko Machida, who took over Sharp in 1998 and turned the company around with his devotion to LCD, ultimately proved to be a victim of his own success after over-investing in the technology.

But now that the company is joined at the hip with Foxconn, which is leaning heavily on Sharp's LCD business, there seems to be little choice but to charge ahead.

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