EMS Q3: Cloudy, with a Chance of Pitfalls

Checking our pool of 30 or so publicly traded EMS companies that have thus far reported third-quarter earnings, we see an industry that is decidedly mixed.

Exactly half of those in our pool reported net income rose over last year. And 16 said sales are higher.

Of the Tier 1s, Foxconn and Jabil said sales were up, and Foxconn and Flextronics saw higher profits. Celestica and Sanmina-SCI saw revenues fall while Plexus’ and Benchmark’s rose. However, all but Sanmina took profit hits.

Confused yet?

The mid tier EMS groups were no easier to divine. On the larger side, Nam Tai and IMI had great quarters all around, Kimball saw operating profits and sales climb, and Venture’s sales ticked up too (it hasn’t reported profits yet), but Fabrinet (whose recovery continues) saw both figures slip. Key Tronic was up, CTS was down. Scanfil was up, Note was down. Neways was up, PartnerTech was down.

You get the idea.

The good news is, most companies, especially the larger ones, saw higher revenues in the third quarter than they did in the first. This could be another sign that the traditional seasonality has returned, which would be welcome at least because it makes things a little more predictable.

In listening to the various analyst calls and poring over the quarterly reports, it seems many companies reaped the benefit of existing programs in the September period, while those who didn’t were plagued mostly by new product starts, which are a drag on earnings. The former could hide some deeper some concerns, because all programs eventually come to an end, and if overall launches are on the decline, it could spell trouble down the road. This could be why several EMS companies, which collectively tend to be a bit gunshy bunch anyway, warned that the December quarter might be slower than the last.

Check out Board Talk, our new bulletin board: theprintedcircuitboard.com


Malaysia v. China

Don’t laugh: When it comes to manufacturing competitiveness, the divide between the two nations is not so wide.

Flextronics, Celestica, Plexus, Beyonics and other major EMS companies are heavily invested in Malaysia. Plexus’ largest factories are there, and the company has expanded of late. Flextronics has 11 factories alone in the country. Four of Beyonics’ six plants are there.

As Flextronics’ VP of supply chain Mark Shandley explains in this article today, customers like Malaysia for its lower and less complicated tax structure, the superior IP protection, and competitive labor rates (although Malaysia, like China, is experiencing large hikes). Sharp differences in attrition are noted as well.

 

 

 

Inside EMS

I attended a fascinating conference yesterday on the state of electronics outsourcing and supply chain management.

Set on the campus of Tellabs in the Chicago suburbs and produced by Charlie Barnhart Associates, speakers and attendees patiently dissected current trends and needs.

So as not to inhibit discussion, I promised not to reveal any specific remarks or details prior without getting the individual speaker’s signoff, so for now I will stick to generalities.

Attending were representatives from about 10 EMS companies and a like number of OEMs, some from Fortune 100 companies. There were also various analysts and other talking heads/pundits. I was the only media person in attendance.

Topics ranged from the concrete to the speculative. Tellabs spoke at length on how and why the telecom gear maker decided to outsource its electronics assembly, and was refreshingly upfront not only about the pros and cons but about the mistakes it made along the way.

Researcher Matt Chanoff noted the startling success of the Apple iPad and wondered whether the reason it has managed to capture a 95% share of the tablet market despite more than 80 competing products has to do more with the “ecology” of Apple vs. the form, fit or function of the iPad itself. He also pointed to a few distinct trends in the electronics design and manufacturing space, noting an unprecedented product platform commoditization is underway, while at the same time a newish breed of hobbyists (“prosumers”) has emerged and created a niche market for very expensive, semi-retro (read: electromechanical) products like cameras.

CEO Cary Wood laid out the turnaround of 118-year-old Sparton, which came thisclose to bankruptcy before righting the ship. The current metrics are an impressive display of refocusing and rebalancing. He said that the bulk of Sparton’s EMS customers two years ago were money losers, and Sparton had to either cancel the programs or renegotiate terms. But the bigger issue was convincing the sales team to jettison bad customers. Wood was forthcoming about the specific policies they put into place, including standardizing templates for pricing and quoting, and installing a sales and incentive program based on profits. He also noted that given Sparton’s exceptionally long history in Michigan, they effectively had to relocate the headquarters because they were the big fish in that small pond, and after all the local layoffs and shutdowns, they would have been tarred and feathered. He also said they made the decision to separate HQ from a manufacturing site so as not to get too emotionally attached to a particular business.

Time and again, OEMs and EMS companies said it was advantageous for competitors to place programs with a single EMS and that IP concerns didn’t really factor into the equation. The EMS companies said that OEM competitors are attracted by the knowledge that the EMS knows how to build products for the target market and that the EMS would also know what the appropriate prices would be. (That latter point was made several times.) In short, IP concerns take a backseat to the hope that the EMS would ensure the build price remained consistent with their competitors’ products (which also hints that OEMs accept the commodity nature of most of their products).

Another speaker asserted that no EMS is too big to fail, Flextronics and Foxconn included. He pointed to the disruption such an event would have on supply chains, pricing and capacity.

The good folks at CBA put me to work moderating a panel made up of two OEMs (Tellabs and Eaton) and three EMS companies of varying size and geographical reach (Plexus, Morey and Creation Technologies). I’ll have more on that in a bit.

 

 

Live, from Chicago!

I’ll be at Charlie Barnhart Associates’ Outsourcing Navigator Council meeting next week in Chicago. Old friends Eric Miscoll and Jennifer Read have invited me to moderate a panel looking at the future of outsourcing.

Among my panelists are executives from Plexus, Creation Technologies, Morey Corp.,  Eaton Corp. and host Tellabs. I’m really looking forward to it, and hope to have some good notes to share with you next week.

 

Predictions, Revisited

In mid July, I made five predictions for the second half of this year.

Here’s how I fared:

Prediction 1. All of 2009’s 10 largest EMS companies – Foxconn, Flextronics, Jabil, Celestica Sanmina, Cal-Comp, Elcoteq, Venture, Benchmark and Plexus – will be intact at year end, and with the exception of Elcoteq, will finish 2010 in the same order. Outcome: Fourth quarter sales remain to be reported, but given their outlooks, I nailed it.
Prediction 2. One of the mid-tier publicly traded EMS companies will be acquired, however. Outcome: Nope. After the Sanmina-SCI bought Breconridge (announced in late April), things became awfully quiet, especially given the amount of cash many top tier EMS players have on hand. I’m guessing concerns over end-market visibility coupled with tight external financing are keeping the major players on the sidelines.
Prediction 3. Component availability issues will not ease until mid 2011. Outcome: TBD, but parts are becoming somewhat easier — but not easy — to get.
Prediction 4. Foxconn’s many employee problems will blow over as the media tires of the story. Outcome: Got this right.
Prediction 5. “Computer-aided innovation” will become the big buzzword in software. Outcome: Wrong.
So for those scoring at home, that’s two right, two wrong, and one partial.

5 Predictions for the Second Half

Here’s my 5 predictions for the second half of 2010.

  1. All of 2009’s 10 largest EMS companies – Foxconn, Flextronics, Jabil, Celestica Sanmina, Cal-Comp, Elcoteq, Venture, Benchmark and Plexus – will be intact at year end, and with the exception of Elcoteq, will finish 2010 in the same order.
  2. One of the mid-tier publicly traded EMS companies will be acquired, however.
  3. Component availability issues will not ease until mid 2011.
  4. Foxconn’s many employee problems will blow over as the media tires of the story.
  5. “Computer-aided innovation” will become the big buzzword in software.

Add Ons

Now that the worst of the financial meltdown is (hopefully) behind us, one of the trends to watch will be how quickly EMS companies expand capacity.

Plexus, which has always been conservative in its approach, said this week it would first consider adding to its Penang, Malaysia, base, which is currently its largest campus, as well as alternatives in China and possibly Thailand. It said its next investment in Europe would likely be in Oradea, Romania, where the company already has two sites and feels “a more permanent location in very close proximity” would be in order.

Celestica, on the other hand, said it is looking to acquire fairly modest-sized health-care businesses, but hasn’t indicated plans to add capacity.

Flextronics and Jabil appear more set on building up manufacturing capabilities for alternative energy products. Foxconn, of course, looks like it might invest just about anywhere.

Plexus Delivers, Again

Plexus this week reported December quarter revenues were flat with last year’s, which for this market counts as a huge win, as most top tier EMS firms saw revenues drop 3% or more. The world’s 10th largest EMS company also turned a net profit, making it a rarity among its large publicly traded competitors.

It’s a testament to the company’s wisdom years ago when it decided to forego chasing revenues in favor of concentrating on the higher margin medical, military and aerospace markets. That foresight, coupled with solid execution, has put Plexus at the forefront of its peer group.

All of which justifies Circuits Assembly’s selection of Plexus as its 2008 EMS Company of the Year.

As markets turn down, EMS companies historically reach for any piece of business they can get to keep factories full. This means new competition. This week, for example, Flextronics chief executive Mike McNamara said the company is “very bullish” on the medical end-market, adding “more and more outsourcing opportunities are coming out of this environment. And it is an industry that is very reasonably new in terms of outsourcing. We think that is a big upside.”

Things aren’t going to get easier in Neenah. But we think the company remains the best-positioned to survive this cold winter.