Sharp subsidiaries strong as parent flails

Camas operations healthy; solar branch largely dismantled

By Aaron Corvin and Gordon Oliver

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Half a world away, the giant Japanese electronics company Sharp Corp. is in a world of trouble.

In releasing an earnings report Thursday with a forecast for a record full-year loss of $5.6 billion, the company with the world's worst-performing major stock questioned its own viability. "Sharp is in circumstances in which material doubt about its assumed going concern is found," the company said in a statement to the Tokyo Stock Exchange included in its second-quarter earnings report.

But in Clark County, two Sharp subsidiaries appear to be weathering their company's storm while another short-lived subsidiary — Solar Energy Solutions Group — has withered. Company officials at two long-standing Sharp business units in Camas see no signs that remaining local operations are threatened by the company's international turmoil.

Sharp Microelectronics of the Americas is reporting booming sales and profits, and will even add to its 130-employee staff, said President John Marck. The division, which does not disclose financial details, markets and sells high-resolution LCD panels for computers and mobile devices, as well as image sensor technology used in cameras integrated into smartphones and other electronic devices.

Sheryl Johnson, human resources manager for Sharp Laboratories of America — the company's research arm — echoed Marck's comments, saying Sharp Labs is likewise doing well. In Camas, the two Sharp subsidiaries employ about 270 people.

However, Sharp's Solar Energy Solutions Group — a small unit which moved from Southern California to the company's 118-acre campus in Camas just over a year ago and which employed an estimated 40 people — has been all but dismantled as the company eliminated jobs as it re-evaluates its position in the struggling solar market.

A handful of solar employees are likely to remain, Marck said Thursday, but they'll report to a solar plant based in Memphis, Tenn.

"We're holding our own," Marck said of Sharp Microelectronics. "If you look at the big picture, Sharp is struggling just like all the Japanese companies are struggling," added Marck, who has led the company for 15 years. "I don't want to minimize it, but maybe it's our turn. IBM, Apple, Ford Motor Co. — all of these companies have gone through something similar to what we're going through."

Sharp calls loss 'huge'

Sharp said its net loss will probably be 450 billion yen, or $5.6 billion, in the year ending March 31, ditching its earlier projection for a 250 billion yen loss. The company has failed to win a planned 67 billion yen investment from Taiwan's Foxconn Technology Group and has had difficulty selling commercial paper as it burns through cash, Bloomberg News reported.

Sharp said its loss for the six months ended Sept. 30 was "huge," stemming from "production delay of new small- and medium-size LCDs" and a "worse than expected drop in sales of LCD TVs in Japan and China."

Sharp said in documents that it will restructure its business, "aiming to be a lifestyle creating company," by cutting expenses, including slashing personnel and salaries, and calling for voluntary retirements. In September, Sharp said it planned to cut nearly 11,000 jobs, or about 18 percent of its workforce, according to Bloomberg News. Those planned job cuts included the 5,000 positions the company said it would slash in August — Sharp's first workforce reduction since 1950.

In Camas, Sharp's primary operations sharply contrast the company's global turmoil.

Sharp Microelectronics of the Americas is "doing very, very well," Marck said. Sales for the fiscal half-year from April through September are up more than 200 percent. Operating income is up more than 100 percent. It is projecting huge increases in sales and profits in the next fiscal half-year.

Marck said he plans to hire more people in the next fiscal half-year, but did not give a number. He said he has volumes of materials about Thursday's earnings report in his office. "I need to try to understand what's behind all this," he said.

As for Sharp's statement doubting its own viability, Marck said: "You hear statements like that and try to find out, who's behind it? What does it mean?"

He said he would be talking with executives in Japan over the next few days.

A shifting solar industry

Bonnie Moore, director of business services for both the Columbia River Economic Development Council and the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council, said Sharp remains an active participant in civic and business issues. For example, Marck serves on the board of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, the Vancouver-based nonprofit that promotes jobs and recruits businesses.

And Sharp Microelectronics of the Americas and Sharp Laboratories are among the CREDC's top business and government investors. This year, both companies are listed as having made a five-year pledge to the CREDC of $100,000 or more.

The nonprofit declined to say exactly how much the two Sharp divisions in Camas are investing in the agency's economic development efforts.

Moore said Thursday that multinational corporations such as Sharp have many business units that vary in their performance levels. In Sharp's case, she said, it's moving to address its under-performing divisions.

That's how it's possible for Sharp's primary subsidiaries in Camas to be doing well even as some of the company's other global operations, including its solar unit, continue to struggle or are shuttered. Moore said it's become increasingly difficult for solar manufacturing to succeed in the U.S., especially when "government incentives are no longer there to support renewable energy manufacturing."

Marck said Sharp is "in the process of trying to figure out what do with the whole solar operation," but has already decided to focus more on the Japan and Asian markets due to weakness in the U.S. market.

Columbian staff writer Cami Joner contributed to this report.