Supply Chain Matters has featured several prior commentaries specifically related to Sharp Corporation, one of three current liquid crystal display (LCD) screen suppliers in Apple’s supply chain.

Sharp has a track record of innovation in LCD technology but a rather rocky financial history as well. Our last commentary in early April, Perils of an Apple Supplier- Sharp Corporation, highlighted continuing reports of severe financial crisis surrounding Sharp. The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that various restructuring options were being considered but no final decision had been made. One reported option was that this supplier was moving to spin-off a portion of its LCD panel business unit with intent to seek a new capital injection from Innovation Network Corp. of Japan, a governmental entity overseen by Japan’s Ministry of Economic Trade and Industry. One of the tenets of Japan’s high tech industry is to rely on government funded agencies to bridge times of financial crisis. Since our April commentary, Sharp’s bankers agreed to provide an additional $1 billion plus lifeline, the second in three years, in exchange for restructuring measures that included a 10 percent workforce reduction. Also since that time, the market prices for LCD panels remain in significant decline as other suppliers turn more to China based smartphone manufacturers for revenue needs. The WSJ cites data stemming from market research firm IHS indicating that 5 inch HD smartphone panel components prices have dropped nearly 60 percent from Q1 2013 through the current quarter.

Today, the WSJ featured a report (paid subscription required) indicating that Sharp has warned that its survival could be at-stake, and that it is now pushing suppliers for deeper price cuts and that it further considering sourcing of display components from new China based suppliers rather than its former Japan based suppliers. At its annual meeting for shareholders held this week, sales directly attributed to Apple accounted for 20 percent of Sharp’s fiscal year revenues.

For the fiscal year that ended in March, Sharp racked up a loss reported to be $1.8 billion, due to write-downs of its LCD operations. Yet, this supplier maintains a public confidence that it can implement steps to maintain its ongoing viability, despite its share price haven fallen upwards of half over the past year.

LCD screens are highly strategic for Apple, and the consumer electronics juggernaut has elected to initiate strategic supply agreement among three different suppliers to insure both leading-edge technologies as well as the ability to scale to Apple’s flexible volume requirements.

All of which leads back to the perils of being an Apple supplier. In a recent Spend Matters sponsored webinar (no relation to this blog), chief research officer Pierre Mitchell observed that Apple imposes very strict contract terms among its supplier base, shifting considerable risk on the backs of suppliers while preserving major rights to product based intellectual rights. So much so that GT Advanced Technologies recently elected to seek voluntary bankruptcy in order to gain leverage with Apple over what was described as onerous contract terms.

The conundrum for Sharp and other Japan based high tech component suppliers is that bankruptcy is culturally looked upon as a  major failure and embarrassment of senior management. So much so that the most optimistic financial forecasts are stubbornly held to up to just prior to the formal reporting of the bad news. On the other hand, firms such as Apple that practice active supply risk mitigation for key components will often have contingency options to buffer the shortfalls or stumbles of any one key supplier.

The financial challenges involving Sharp will most likely linger and through its ongoing re-structuring efforts, this supplier could introduce even more risk into its ability to deliver to customer needs.

The takeaway for the broader high-tech supplier community is to insure you understand all the terms and risk implications of your supply and technology agreements.

Bob Ferrari