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Sony revision spurs credibility crisis for Hirai

Hard-charging CEO not producing the hits investors were expecting

by Mariko Yasu and Grace Huang

Bloomberg

Kazuo Hirai, who took the helm at Sony Corp. two years ago to revive the Japanese icon, is losing credibility with investors who think he’s not up to the job.

The chief executive officer pledged when he came in to turn around Sony’s ailing consumer electronics business and generate a profit at the television unit after $7 billion in losses. Instead, the TV business will lose money for a 10th straight year and he’s forecasting a $1.1 billion annual loss.

Hirai has now revised Sony’s profit forecast down twice in four months and is showing few signs of developing hits to compete with Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. The steps announced Thursday — selling the personal computer unit, cutting 5,000 more jobs and splitting the TV business into a separate subsidiary — did little to reassure shareholders Sony is making progress.

“Hirai has tried many things, and if those plans don’t work by next year, I’ll have to question his management,” said Naoki Fujiwara, a Tokyo-based chief fund manager at Shinkin Asset Management Co., which owns Sony shares, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “It will be challenging for Hirai to take the company in the direction he wants to.”

The net loss will total ¥110 billion in the year ending March 31, the Tokyo-based company said in a statement, scrapping its revised October forecast for a ¥30 billion profit. Full-year operating income will be ¥80 billion, less than half its October forecast of ¥170 billion, Sony said.

The sales projection remained at ¥7.7 trillion.

“My responsibility is to turn around the electronics operation,” Hirai said Thursday. “I’d like to say this time’s reform is final but amid intensifying competition, reform may be needed going forward.”

Sony cited the costs of restructuring its TV and PC units for the revisions. The company is taking charges of ¥70 billion this year and the same amount next year.

Annual fixed costs are forecast to fall by more ¥100 billion in the following year.

“Investors don’t have much faith in Hirai,” said Mitsushige Akino, chief fund manager at Ichiyoshi Asset Management Co. in Tokyo. “He said reform was over but is that really so? There’s no growth strategy.”

The TV unit will lose ¥25 billion this year — its 10th straight loss — and Sony plans to split the unit into a wholly owned subsidiary. The world’s No. 3 TV maker kept its October forecast for sales of 14 million liquid-crystal-display sets after cutting it from 15 million last year.

Sony hasn’t ruled out selling the business in the future after receiving “various offers,” Hirai told reporters in Tokyo on Thursday without elaborating. That is a change from February 2012, when he said it was “very difficult to imagine Sony getting out of the TV business.”

The company known for the Trinitron brand has lost about ¥787 billion making TVs in the past decade, yet is now introducing a line of ultra high-definition sets that cost as much as $25,000.

“Every year, Sony says they would make the TV unit profitable and, each time, they fail to deliver that goal,” said Makoto Kikuchi, the Tokyo-based chief executive officer for Myojo Asset Management Co. “Sony should stop producing TVs like it’s doing with PCs.”

The company will sell its PC business, which offers notebooks under the Vaio brand, to buyout firm Japan Industrial Partners Inc., Sony said on Thursday.

“Sony’s sale of the PC business and spinoff of TV are moves in the right direction and can build a perception of real restructuring,” Jefferies Group LLC analyst Atul Goyal said in a report, raising the stock to buy from hold.

When Hirai took over, he said the pillars of his revival strategy were mobile devices, games and imaging products. The company subsequently rose to No. 3 in global smartphone shipment revenue in the September quarter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

On Thursday, Sony lowered its sales forecast for Xperia smartphones to 40 million units from an earlier projection of 42 million units.

“The dawn is still far away,” said Yasuaki Kogure, chief investment officer at Tokyo’s SBI Asset Management Co., which holds Sony shares, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “It makes me wonder whether anything essential is changing within Sony.”

A bright spot for the company is its new PlayStation 4 game console, which sold more than 4.2 million units in the first six weeks after its November release, outpacing competing machines from Microsoft Corp. and Nintendo Co.

Hirai made his name reviving the game unit before taking the top job in April 2012, edging out candidates including former Executive Vice President Hiroshi Yoshioka, who failed to fix the TV unit.

Sony has been selling assets to generate one-time profit and said last month it began cutting jobs at its Hollywood film studio as part of $250 million in cost reductions after billionaire investor Daniel Loeb pushed for a spinoff of a portion of the entertainment unit.

Since the film unit posted a loss in the September quarter after “White House Down” flopped at the box office, Sony has found commercial and critical success with “American Hustle” and “Captain Phillips,” both of which garnered best-picture nominations at the Academy Awards. This year, Sony will release a sequel to 2012′s “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

Sony’s long-term credit rating was cut to junk last month by Moody’s Investors Service, which cited the challenges of reviving the TV and PC units. Sony was already rated junk at Fitch Ratings.

“Hirai lacks aggressiveness,” said Hideki Yasuda, an analyst at Ace Research Institute in Tokyo. “Sony hasn’t created new demand like Apple did with the iPod and iPhone, and as Sony once did with the Walkman.”

Sony shuts e-book store

Sony announced Thursday it will close its e-book store for North America and give its customer list to rival Kobo.

Sony, which earlier unveiled a major reorganization, said it will close its Reader Store in the U.S. and Canada on March 20.

“Although we’re sorry to say goodbye to the Reader Store, we’re also glad to share the new and exciting future for our readers: Reader Store will transfer customers to Toronto-based e-reading company Kobo — an admired e-book seller with a passionate reading community,” a blog post at the Sony Reader website said.

Sony said customers and their current e-book libraries “will be transferred to the Kobo ecosystem” under the change.

“Kobo is the ideal solution for our customers and will deliver a robust and comprehensive user experience. Like Sony, they are committed to those most passionate about reading and share our vision to use open formats so people can easily read anytime and anywhere,” said Ken Orii, Sony vice president for digital reading.

“Our customers can be assured that they will have a seamless transition to the Kobo ecosystem and will be able to continue to access and read the titles they love from Sony devices,” he said.

Kobo, founded in 2009, sells e-books and reading devices. The Canadian firm’s website says it “offers one of the world’s largest e-bookstores with nearly 4 million titles across 68 languages.”