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

Fall of Milan

Those familiar with their Sanmina-SCI history might recall the name Milan Mandari?. Mandari? cofounded the firm along with Jure Sola in 1980.

Sola, of course, remains in charge. For his part, Mandari? moved to England, bought a soccer team, and continued to invest in new businesses.

Perhaps he should have stayed in PCBs. Mandari? is currently on trial, charged with making bribes in order to avoid business transaction taxes. (He denies the charges.)

Thai Floods’ Hidden Asset

In a perverse way, the flooding in Thailand might have a hidden benefit — it could help boost pricing in a way the market otherwise would never allow.

Seagate today said as much in an SEC 8-k filing. The HDD maker noted the severity of disruption the floods have wrought on the hard drive supply chain, causing it to project total industry shipments of 110 million to 120 million units for the quarter. That’s in line with IHS iSuppli’s forecast of a 28% year-over-year drop. Better rethink gifting a  PC for Christmas.

But there quite possibly a silver lining. When capacity is reduced and demand is constant, prices rise. Deutsche Bank senior analyst Sherri Scribner said as much today, noting “Despite the significant shortfall in total available market this quarter, we believe Seagate and the industry will see a gross margin benefit from HDD supply disruptions. As we have already begun to see in the channel, limited availability of HDDs is driving prices higher and pricing is the primary driver of gross margins.”

She also points out that the effect will be lingering, as HDD pricing is set based on prior quarter prices.

We saw this a few years ago, when a fire at ASE in Taiwan took an estimated 10% of the world’s flip-chip capacity offline and pushed up prices and delivery times for several quarters.

The electronics supply chain has long been in dire need of a little inflation. This could help.

Summer Doldrums

Is it cyclicality, or … ?

Many reports, anecdotal and evidentiary, point to a general slowing in PCB production and sales over the past quarter.

Yet there are some reasons for optimism:

I am of the mindset that what we are seeing is a return to cyclicality after roughly two years of recession followed by a year-plus of bottled-up demand. Clearly there’s some market turbulence ahead, especially when we take the macro vectors into account. Some of the end-markets need a boost: Now that Windows 7 has taken over, PCs are stagnant, with new tablet demand offset by rather humdrum desktop/laptop interest coupled with some migration to smartphones. Nokia and RIM are skidding, and Apple can’t make up for everyone’s lack of flair. Autos are a big-ticket item and many consumers today need stronger feelings of job security before taking on new debt.

A forecast slowdown in US defense spending (the nation’s fiscal year starts in October) could be partially offset by new deliveries of jumbo passenger jets (Boeing last month announced a record single order and will ship its first Dreamliner next month).

The tea leaves are murky. We hope for the best.


I’m one of those who didn’t see the possible acquisition of LaBarge by a non-EMS firm.

In fact, I thought either LaBarge would continue to buy other, smaller EMS firms (I’ve heard of its interest in some deals that were never consummated), or it would be gobbled up by a Sanmina-SCI or the like.

But today defense supplier Ducommun announced it would acquire the electronics manufacturing services firm for $340 million, or just one times revenue plus debt. The move is expected to almost double Ducommun’s annual revenue and boost its margins.

Don’t expect those synergies to happen overnight, if ever. EMS is a different sell than the components like panels and switches Ducommun has made a living off of for more than 150 years.

Here’s a question: Does this, coupled with API Technologies’ recent acquisition of SenDec, signal a larger trend of consolidation on the competitive but relatively margin-friendly military EMS industry?

Another question: What becomes of Craig LaBarge, who has run the eponymously named firm since 1991, taking over for his father, who founded the company in 1953. Will he sit still on the sidelines, or will he take another shot at empire building?

Good Times, Bad Times

Major printed circuit board fabricators are beginning to report their quarterly earnings, and the figures give some reason for concern.

By all accounts, 2010 was a banner year for PCBs in all regions. Sales were up 34% year-over-year in Germany through October, 18% in North America through November, and at least 10% overall worldwide. TTM and M-Flex, among others, are reporting record sales. DDi beat the pack to the recovery and has continued to spike.

But while the specialists are doing great, not all is well.

While Multek, a top 5 PCB provider, grew in the low-double digits sequentially, profits are scarcer, with the company saying the unit won’t be breakeven until the end of the current quarter (and that assumes the no dip in orders). Sanmina experienced problems in one of its factories (rumored to be Kuching, Malaysia) that sucked the margin out of what should be one of its more profitable businesses.

And that’s my concern: Even during a period where demand peaked, the largest players are still not consistently profitable. Based on experience, when the market slows, that means more factory closures or continued losses, or both. Another likely response is dropping their drawers on pricing, a move that inevitably ripples through the broader market.

Twenty years (!) in the PCB market has taught me this: If you can’t make a profit in an up market, you can’t make one in a down market.

There’s only one way to resolve this conundrum. The capacity increases have to stop. Let the factories remain full for a few years. Push back on OEMs that constantly demand price reductions with little regard for rising commodity prices and currency fluctuations. Try working together as an industry on this.

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.

Sola Lonely

Sanmina-SCI’s model hasn’t been, shall we say, ideal over the years.

The company, which pre-2000 was considered one of the best-run PWB and EMS companies around, got caught up in the M&A fever, buying SCI and Hadco, and since has struggled to stay profitable even in industry upswings. More often than not, Sanmina has had to take restructuring costs as it tries to rationalize its capacity.

So it was interesting when, during its fiscal third-quarter analysts conference call (on which it announced another $16 million to $18 million in restructuring costs), chairman and chief executive Jure Sola described how the company plans to fill its unused printed circuit board capacity.

As PCD&F reported earlier this week, Sanmina’s printed circuit board fabrication plants in Asia are at 85% to 90% capacity, while in North America one plant (San Jose*) is over 90% and another (Owego, NY**) is at 55% to 60%.

Sola’s take is that the company needs to compete on technology, not labor. But a leading PWB analyst and friend told me yesterday the market has become one in which volume alone will decide the winners.

Sanmina’s PCB sales are likely to near $400 million this year, which is up significantly from 2009 but still far behind the industry’s biggest players. If my friend is right, it suggests Sanmina, again, will be left in the cold.

*I think.
**I also think.

CEOs: Not Much EMS M&A Expected

Earnings announcements came out this week for Flextronics, Sanmina-SCI, CTS, Celestica, Key Tronic, IEC and a few others.

I’ve been listening to the quarterly analyst briefings, and it would *appear* that most of the major EMS companies don’t plan any earth-shaking M&A activity.

Most are taking the approach of Celestica CEO Craig Muhlhauser, who said they would focus on areas like health care where they don’t have tremendous established depth. Flextronics CEO Mike McNamara didn’t even raise the subject. Neither did Sanmina chairman Jure Sola.

And congratulations to CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY EMS Company of the Year Key Tronic on yet another profitable quarter. That’s six straight years, and counting.