Foxconn founder keeps investors in the dark, happy for now
Foxconn founder Terry Gou has a vision of how to rewire the Taiwan firm that builds iPhones to cut dependence on Apple, the client around which he built a US$46 billion tech empire. Just don't expect him to tell anyone exactly what it is.
With the latest version of Apple's smash hit smartphone having catapulted first-quarter profit 55 per cent higher, investors have sent shares in Hon Hai Precision Industry - Foxconn's flagship - rising towards the historic highs hit eight years ago that give it its lofty market value.
Within two years, though, analysts expect annual iPhone shipments growth to slow to a fraction of 2012's boom. If few question Gou's management savvy, investors say they're stuck in the dark on broad-brush plans to diversify into new tech like electric cars and robots, as well as waiting to hear how he intends to make good on pledges to crack new markets like India, Brazil and Indonesia.
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That's how Gou prefers it, he explained at his once-a-year reckoning with investors in last month's annual general meeting. "I have a lot of the information they want," he said, referring to big foreign institutions, which make up 48 per cent of Hon Hai's shareholders, "but I insist on not making it public."
Gou's business instincts have served him well, building the world's biggest contract maker of electronic gadgets from scratch more than 40 years ago. Yet at 64, the chairman and chief executive's maverick approach to transparency also stretches to lack of precise word on succession plans, leaving company watchers trusting his skills but wondering what kind of business Hon Hai will become, and who will run it in future.
Sovereign wealth funds from Norway, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi rank among Hon Hai's top 10 shareholders - and Gou himself is the biggest single investor with a direct 12.5 per cent stake, making him one of Taiwan's richest men. But Gou said sharing information with them would be unfair to the army of retail investors who own nearly 40 per cent of Hon Hai, outnumbering foreign shareholders 220 to 1.
"He doesn't tell you 'this'. He doesn't tell you 'that'. Nothing you can do about it," said Andrew Yang, head of Taiwan investments at Manulife Asset Management, which regularly buys Hon Hai shares. "If [Gou] can deliver results, then all you can do is believe he has competitiveness."
It's not unusual for company founders to retain a tight grip even after they take their firms public. But as demands for better corporate governance grow across Asia, some tech barons have moved to address concerns.
Masayoshi Son at Japan's SoftBank - for which Hon Hai assembles a humanoid robot called Pepper - has named a potential successor as CEO, while the head of Japan's secretive industrial robot maker Fanuc Corp yielded to activist investor pressure and agreed to meet shareholders twice a year after avoiding them for years.
At Hon Hai, Gou is tough to pin down most days of the year and tougher still to figure out, according to people who have worked with him. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they said he can be cool-headed and efficient in business dealings, yet in public his comments remain lofty, taking time at the AGM to talk up emerging markets overtaking the industrialised Group of Seven nations as world growth drivers by 2050 - when he turns 100.
"Of course, I will still be around," he told shareholders.
Gou sets great store by personal relationships and many Hon Hai decisions ultimately rest on key meetings he has with various government authorities or business partners. If he isn't there, the plans simply aren't final, the people who have worked with him said, regardless of projected timelines or investment figures given earlier.
Asked for comment, Foxconn said Gou is actively involved in all aspects of Foxconn's business, including recruiting a "strong and deep executive team," according to a company statement.
"Any succession plan will include a management structure that ensures that at the appropriate time there is a leadership team well-prepared to assume any and all aspects of the management of our company," Foxconn said.
Hon Hai is moving in the right direction, analysts said, but diversification will take time. A long-awaited US$1 billion investment in Indonesia, touted by Hon Hai as a major move, remains in negotiation limbo, and plans to develop in both India and Brazil have yet to take concrete shape.
"We don't know what kind of picture Terry wants for the Hon Hai kingdom," said Kylie Huang, an analyst with Daiwa-Cathay Capital Markets in Taipei.
A group of foreign institutional investors has been engaging with the firm since 2012 with gentle entreaties to raise its game on governance. They say Hon Hai is paying attention and that change is coming slowly, such as getting regular access to senior executives close to Gou.
But activists are watching the story unfold, particularly with a view to smooth management succession.
"Without [Gou] starting to delegate, stepping back from some of these key relationships and simplifying the corporate structure, it is very difficult to see how someone could step in successfully," said Hans-Christoph Hirt, an executive director at Hermes Equity Ownership Services.