Sony Boss Needs To Be Tough
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Sony Chief Executive Howard Stringer needs to outline more than just cost cuts when he presents a three-year business plan for the world’s second-biggest maker of consumer electronics today, investors said.

Share in Sony rose 8.9 percent this month on expectations Stringer, a 63-year-old former media executive, will cut unprofitable businesses and outline plans for investing more in selected products.

Sony, which sells Wega televisions, Vaio computers and Walkman music players, has faltered in the consumer electronics business losing market share to rivals such as Samsung Electronics Co. and Apple Computer Inc., and as lower prices in the industry cut into profit margins.

“Sony needs to go back to its bread-and-butter business of creating stellar electronics,” said Vinson Lau, a Singapore-based fund manager at Phillip Capital Management Ltd., which oversees the equivalent of $357 million including Sony shares. “If they can demonstrate some kind of focus on what businesses that they are going to concentrate on, the market will take that positively.”

Of the 21 analysts covering Sony and tracked by Bloomberg, four have “buy” ratings on the stock, 11 recommend “hold” and six say investors should sell the stock. The shares have been little changed since March 7 when the company named Stringer as chief executive, while the Nikkei 225 Stock Average is trading at its highest since June 2001.

“It is my hope to do something about the share price,” Stringer said at a June 22 shareholders’ meeting. “I too am a shareholder.”

`Won’t Be Sufficient’

During his eight years heading Sony’s U.S. operations, Stringer oversaw the company’s $2.9 billion purchase of Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. last year, cut more than 9,000 jobs and $700 million in annual costs and improved communication among the different business groups.

“Job cuts, factory closures, and sales of non-core businesses are obvious measures, but these won’t be sufficient,” said Kazuya Yamamoto, an analyst at UFJ Tsubasa Securities Co. in Tokyo. “The share price won’t gain unless they clearly lay out how they are going to use the money from cost cuts and where their focus for growth is going to be.”

Stringer has already made some changes. Last week, the company promoted Andrew House, who helped create the strategy to sell the PlayStation video-game system, to the new position of chief marketing officer. The company also named Fujio Nishida, an electronics marketing executive from Tokyo, as president of its European operations.

TV Business

Sony also began phasing out its eight-year-old Wega brand flat-panel televisions and replaced it with the Bravia name, to give it a new look and revive the business, said Katsumi Ihara, head of the electronics business.

Sony on July 28 cut its full-year shipment forecast for LCD televisions by 17 percent to 2.5 million units, prompting the company to slash its annual profit forecast 88 percent to 10 billion yen.

The company has seen its market share erode in the television industry as it was late in bringing out flat-panel models. In April it began shipping LCD panels at a $2 billion venture with Suwon, South Korea-based Samsung, called S-LCD Corp., to curb costs by supplying its own television panels.

`Turnaround’

“Sony should concentrate on games, movies and music and software businesses rather than hardware businesses,” said Yuuki Sakurai, who helps manage the equivalent of about $45 billion at Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Tokyo. “I’m not quite sure about their concentrating on flat-panel TVs because this is a very competitive market.”

Credit Suisse First Boston analysts William Drewry and Koya Tabata last week raised their 12-month share price estimate for Sony by 21 percent to 5,200 yen. Shares of Sony fell 0.5 percent to 4,030 yen on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

“Sony is a massive turnaround story that is multifaceted, appears complicated, but has a compelling risk-reward profile,” according to their report dated Sept. 15. “If management can execute reasonably well over the next 12 months, they have an opportunity to generate significant shareholder value.”

Stringer’s predecessor Nobuyuki Idei in October 2003 announced a three-year plan, named Transformation-60, that included 20,000 job cuts, reducing suppliers to about 1,000 companies from 4,700, and raising operating profit margin, excluding its financial unit, to 10 percent by March 2007. Sony’s operating margin at the end of March 2005 was 1.6 percent.

`Hollow Promises’

Standard & Poor’s last month placed Sony’s long-term credit rating of A on review “with negative implications,” citing falling profits at the television business. A decision to change the rating will hinge on whether Sony provides plans to speed up product development and cut costs at the television business, S&P analyst Fusako Nagao said.

“Restructuring is the first step and that’s the easy part, but what they don’t have yet is a viable business model,” said Carlos Dimas, an analyst at CLSA Asia Pacific Markets, who has an “outperform” rating on Sony. “The market won’t accept hollow promises.”