SHANGHAI – Prior to its 2006 acquisition by China’s Suntech Group, MSK Corp. was a middling Japanese solar system maker, struggling to secure supplies of vital solar cells against much bigger rivals like Sharp Corp.
Suntech Power Japan Corp., as MSK is now called, has since gained a competitive edge, aided by a steady supply stream from its Chinese parent. It is now ranked around fifth in solar system sales in Japan.
Meanwhile, Suntech Power Holdings Co., the parent company, has emerged as the world’s largest solar panel maker by capitalizing on an explosion in global sales of solar power systems, particularly in the United States and Europe.
The rise of Suntech as well as European and American solar cell makers has stolen the shine from Japan’s solar industry, once regarded as the global leader.
Suntech’s takeover of MSK drew attention as the first large-scale Chinese acquisition of a Japanese company. But the Chinese connection may not be a big deal for Japanese employees like Kuniko Misawa, who stresses the cosmopolitan nature of the Suntech group.
Doing business under the wing of Suntech is functioning as part of a global company, rather than serving a Chinese master, Misawa said at Suntech’s headquarters in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, on China’s east coast.
Misawa, who combines marketing and public relations duties in the Tokyo office, visits the Chinese headquarters, a building gleaming with solar panels, every three months or so. She said her inability to speak Chinese doesn’t pose a problem because English is the standard language at meetings at the head office.
Comparing her current job with her working experience at a Japanese electronics maker, Misawa said, “Japanese companies are no match (for Suntech) in quick decision-making and action.”
For example, when Misawa conveyed to the Chinese side what seemed to be an overly fastidious complaint from a Japanese customer who had found a fingerprint on a new product, the response was immediate. The production line manager in charge came up with a solution the same day, proposing to add the process of cleaning the product surface.
“I saw eagerness for quality improvement,” Misawa said.
The Chinese acquisition has brought change to Japanese offices and factories. The rigor of the results-linked pay system introduced after the takeover prompted some workers to leave the company.
But Katsumi Arai, who works at Suntech Power Japan’s factory in Saku, Nagano Prefecture, embraced the change, citing better working conditions, including paid leave and other benefits.
He also welcomed the new pay system, which evaluates employees’ performance based on progress in achieving goals they have set themselves.
Still, some Japanese workers may have mixed feelings about working for a Chinese-controlled company at this sensitive stage in Japan’s relations with its bigger neighbor, both economic and diplomatic.
Whereas the Japanese economy has been stagnant for nearly two decades, China has risen meteorically over the past several years. As a result, it has surpassed Japan in gross domestic product, becoming the world’s second-largest economy after the United States.
Sino-Japanese relations have also been strained by a string of disputes, particularly the territorial row over the Senkaku Islands in a resource-rich area of the East China Sea.
“I sometimes feel indignation at China” when a bilateral dispute arises, Arai conceded.
However, the Chinese acquisition has proved successful, although there was a price to pay for survival, such as the closure of a plant in Fukuoka Prefecture.
As it aggressively seeks to expand sales, Suntech Power Japan has formed a partnership with Yamada Denki Co., Japan’s biggest mass electronics retailer.
Misawa said coming under Suntech’s wing was the right decision. “Our name recognition has definitely increased,” she explained.
The parent company appears willing to take a long-term approach in attacking the Japanese market, which is dominated by Japanese companies such as Sharp and Kyocera Corp.
“The solar power business is not a 100-meter dash. It’s a marathon,” a representative at Suntech’s head office said.