Exclusive: Banks offer to help Sony offload battery unit - sources
By Emi Emoto and Tim Kelly
TOKYO (Reuters) - Sony Corp has been approached by at least three investment banks offering to sell its battery business as the struggling Japanese group looks to offload non-core assets and focus on reviving its consumer electronics business, banking sources said.
Selling the unit, which employs 2,700 people and had sales last year of $1.74 billion, would help Sony cut costs and generate cash as it restructures its operations, three people involved in the preliminary discussions told Reuters.
The company, a byword for innovative gadgetry in the 1970s and 80s, has been battered by weak demand for its TVs in a fiercely competitive market. The TV business has racked up huge losses; Sony's market value has slumped to below $10 billion and ratings agency Fitch last week downgraded the company's debt to "junk" status - a move likely to push up borrowing costs and make asset sales more attractive.
CEO Kazuo Hirai has pledged to rebuild Sony around gaming, digital imaging and mobile devices, while nurturing new businesses such as medical devices. He is axing 10,000 jobs, closing facilities and selling assets. Any disposals would be part of a broader "garage sale" by Japan's leading electronics groups that are hurting in weak markets and tight financing.
Potential buyers for Sony Energy Devices Corp - founded in 1975 as Sony-Eveready, a joint venture with Union Carbide Corp - could include Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry and BYD Co Ltd, a Chinese carmaker backed by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, said one of the sources. Hon Hai is also in negotiations to become rival TV maker Sharp Corp's biggest shareholder.
Despite a strong yen, interest is likely to come mainly from potential foreign buyers, said the sources, who did not want to be named as the talks are private.
Selling the business overseas may not go down well with a Japanese government that in the past has kept technology at home by promoting alliances between local producers. Panasonic Corp, NEC Corp and Hitachi Ltd also make lithium-ion batteries, though the firms' fabrication technology differs. Continued...