LONDON – The plan put together to try and transform the fortunes of struggling mobile chip company ST-Ericsson NV by CEO Didier Lamouche, announced Monday (April 23), at one level makes a kind of sense, but it also looks like the last throw of the dice by an unlucky gambler.
The fact the company has not opted to – or not been able to – sell off at least a substantial part of its operation and get new backing and support makes the plan underwhelming. The fact that ST-Ericsson plans to cut 1,700 jobs or about 25 percent of the work force may seem radical – and is certainly unfortunate for those that will be thrown out of work – but it also underlines the size of the problem. And in Europe such plans must be referred to works councils and worker representatives, which is likely to slow down and add cost to the company's exit from a number of sites. It is not the clean and decisive break with the past that many analysts were hoping to hear.
Lamouche talked a good game about cost reduction to halve the break-even point with a view to achieving profitability in 2014. That makes it look like a patient and long-term plan. But while Lamouche may have that much patience it is not clear that the mobile device market does. By the time the ST-Ericsson restructuring plans start to yield results, towards the end of 2013, the market will have moved on and plenty of companies, more agile and with more secure backgrounds, will be there offering ARM-based SoCs by then, a time when mobile device growth may have slowed from its present sky-rocket rates.
More importantly the lack of a sell-off means that ST-Ericsson's losses will continue to be consolidated within the financial results of parent STMicroelectronics NV and continue to act as a drag on ST's performance. This will cause exasperation among both shareholders and financial analysts, which in turn may mean that ST will not be allowed to have the patience to stick with the plan through 2014.
The plan as laid out is for ST-Ericsson to be a developer of mobile device SoCs and firmware to create "platforms" based on a mix of home-grown and licensed-in IP blocks.
Lamouche called the strategy ModApp indicating that ST-Ericsson would put together modem-plus-application processor platforms. To that end ST-Ericsson will continue to develop modem IP, which it considers its crown jewels, but the ARM-based application processor cores and about 500 jobs are being passed to STMicroelectronics. These are part of the 1,700 jobs being cut out of ST-Ericsson. We don't know the exact number but Carlo Ferro, chief operating officer, said the application processor group represented several hundred jobs but by no means the majority of the 1,700 jobs being axed.
On one hand ST-Ericsson working with ST is the only sensible option because it preserves the processor and platform roadmap with which it has been using to try and attract design wins. On the other hand working with ST is balance sheet disaster because it appears to just be moving the pain around without creating a great deal of added value or financial efficiency. Lamouche said ST-Ericsson had considered four partner companies before deciding to work with ST, without revealing names.
However, companies may express interest in a rescue plan just to get a look at the books and the senior management of a struggling competitor to help them execute the final coup do grace later. It is not clear that any other ARM licensees were ever serious contenders to take over ST-Ericsson's app processor activities.
The story of ST-Ericsson continues on the same success track. ST will cut it in pieces till the last slice. Qualcomm, TI and Mediatek do not have these problems. Is it a question of management performance ?
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