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Panasonic needs new focus for next 100 years, president warns

Appliances won't be enough, but auto industry trends spell opportunity

Panasonic President Kazuhiro Tsuga

OSAKA -- As Panasonic prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding by Konosuke Matsushita in March, the company finds itself holding the enviable position of Japan's top home appliance maker. Nevertheless, President Kazuhiro Tsuga is determined to change the group's business model, since the appliance business alone will not generate growth, he told The Nikkei in a recent interview.

Since becoming president in 2012, Tsuga has directed the company's resources into auto components and housing. This put Panasonic on track for its first sales increase in four years and first profit rise in two years in the current business year through March. 

Besides the auto business, though, Tsuga appears to be struggling to find new growth engines that consumers can easily associate with the Panasonic name. These diversification efforts will set the tone for the next 100 years. 

Q: How do you sum up the last 100 years?

A: While the founder was still active, the company grew steadily. In the last 20 years, things have not necessarily gone well because of price competition from South Korean and Chinese rivals. If we continue with home appliances only, our future will not be safe for the next 100 or even 10 years.

Q: Who are your rivals?

A: We do not intend to directly challenge big electronics companies like South Korea's Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics. But in certain regions, we must win. Our shift to white goods was designed to do that. We have nearly given up on a global fight to sell as many products as possible by undercutting rivals. Our view on home appliance business now is to compete in markets where we are rooted in people's lives.

Q: What kind of company does Panasonic aim to become?

A: I think that those [companies] that end up changing their business models as they go forward are the "real" ones. We have not made many changes to our business model in the past.

Q: Panasonic has been shifting its focus from home appliances to auto components. What is the thinking behind that?

A: Our sales of auto components are still around 20th in the global ranking. Eventually we hope to become a "mega tier 1" supplier like Denso and Germany's Robert Bosch. We will not have a chance if the current industrial structure remains the same. But if vehicles are to be made of different parts such as electric parts, we could.

Q: How do you feel about entering your sixth year as president, which, by Panasonic's unwritten rules, means your last?

A: I wouldn't say that I don't think about it at all. My two predecessors stepped down after six years. But I'm not their age yet. I became president when I was 55. I don't think I should step down just because I spent six years in the job.

Q: How about 66, when Konosuke [Matsushita] stepped down?

A: There are top company executives who push through bold reforms regardless of their age. If the founder were still alive today and I decided to step down just because I turned 66, I think he would say, "What?"

Q: Tesla, with which Panasonic jointly runs a battery factory, has been falling behind schedule in electric vehicle production. What is your view on that?

A: Tesla pushed itself a bit too hard when it started mass production. We worked hard to follow Tesla CEO Elon Musk, but once Tesla began production, bottlenecks were found and we had to stop battery production. That made our relationship a bit awkward. But now we have good communication. I'm not concerned.

Q: Panasonic has the world's largest share of the market for lithium-ion batteries for passenger vehicles. What is the plan going forward?

A: The answer is clear. We will lead the market not with volume but with technology and manufacturing power. When electric vehicles become a boom in the future, many batteries will be needed. That's when mass production will become crucial.

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