MANAGEMENT FOCUS Philips in China
The Dutch consumer electronics, lighting, semiconductor, and medical equipment conglomerate Philips Electronics NV has been operating factories in China since 1985, when the country first opened its markets to foreign investors. Then, China was seen as the land of unlimited demand, and Philips, like many other Western companies, dreamed of Chinese consumers snapping up its products by the millions. But the company soon found out that one of the big reasons the company liked China—the low wage rates—also meant that few Chinese workers could afford to buy the products they were producing. So Philips hit on a new strategy: Keep the factories in China, but export most of the goods to developed nations.
The company now operates more than 35 wholly owned subsidiaries and joint ventures in China. Together, they employ some 30,000 people. Philips exports nearly two-thirds of the $7 billion in products that the factories produce every year. Philips accelerated its Chinese investment in anticipation of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. In 2003, Philips announced it would phase out production of electronic razors in the Netherlands, lay off 2,000 Dutch employees, and move production to China by 2005. A week earlier, Philips had stated it would expand capacity at its semiconductor factories in China, while phasing out production in higher-cost locations elsewhere. More recently, Philips has been investing in the production of medical equipment in China, including CT scanners and MRI machines.
The initial attractions of China to Philips included low wage rates, an educated workforce, a robust Chinese economy, a stable exchange rate that is linked to the U.S. dollar through a managed float, a rapidly expanding industrial base that includes many other Western and Chinese companies that Philips uses as suppliers, and easier access to world markets given China’s entry into the WTO. Philips has stated that ultimately its goal is to turn China into a global supply base from which the company’s products will be exported around the world. By the mid-2000s, more than 25 percent of everything Philips made worldwide came from China, and executives say the figure is rising rapidly. Several products are now made only in China. Philips is also starting to give its Chinese factories a greater role in product development. In the TV business, for example, basic development used to occur in Holland but was moved to Singapore in the early 1990s. Philips transferred TV development work to a new R&D center in Suzhou near Shanghai. Similarly, basic product development work on LCD screens for cell phones was shifted to Shanghai.
Some observers worry that Philips and companies pursuing a similar strategy might be overdoing it. Too much dependence on China could be dangerous if political, economic, or other problems disrupt production and the company’s ability to supply global markets. Some observers believe that it might be better if the manufacturing facilities of companies were more geographically diverse as a hedge against problems in China. These fears have taken on added importance recently as labor costs have accelerated in China due to labor shortages. According to some estimates, labor costs have been growing by 20 percent per year since the late 2000s. On the other hand, there is a silver lining to this cloud: Chinese consumption of many of the products that Philips makes there is now rising rapidly.
Sources: B. Einhorn, “Philips’ Expanding Asia Connections,” BusinessWeek Online, November 27, 2003; K. Leggett and P. Wonacott, “The World’s Factory: A Surge in Exports from China Jolts the Global Industry,” The Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2002, p. A1; “Philips NV: China Will Be Production Site for Electronic Razors,” The Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2003, p. B12; “Philips Plans China Expansion,” The Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2003, p. B13; M. Saunderson, “Eight Out of 10 DVD Players Will Be Made in China,” Dealerscope, July 2004, p. 28; and J. Blau, “Philips Tears Down Eindhoven R&D Fence,” Research Technology Management 50, no. 6 (2007), pp. 9–11.
Another important country factor is expected future movements in its exchange rate (see Chapters 10 and 11). Adverse changes in exchange rates can quickly alter a country’s attractiveness as a manufacturing base. Currency appreciation can transform a low-cost location into a high-cost location. Many Japanese corporations had to grapple with this problem during the 1990s and early 2000s. The relatively low value of the yen on foreign exchange markets between 1950 and 1980 helped strengthen Japan’s position as a low-cost location for manufacturing. More recently, however, the yen’s steady appreciation against the dollar increased the dollar cost of products exported from Japan, making Japan less attractive as a manufacturing location. In response, many Japanese firms moved their manufacturing offshore to lower-cost locations in East Asia.