By Reiji Murai and Sophie Knight
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's TDK Corp, an electronics parts maker that has struggled to make a profit while several of its peers grew rich in the smartphone boom, has found help rebuilding its fortunes with the rise of China's smartphone makers.
Once a leading brand in cassette tapes that later prospered in magnetic heads for hard disk drives until the PC business headed south, TDK fell behind rivals such as Murata Manufacturing Ltd in making tiny, high-spec parts for mobile gadgets like Apple Inc's iPhones and iPads.
But it has shifted its product strategy towards SAW filters, a key mobile phone part that sorts out unnecessary radio signals, and ramped up output, and has seen a surge in orders from low-cost Chinese rivals to Apple and Samsung Electronics Co, the world's dominant smartphone makers.
"We were late to get in, but now Chinese demand is growing," TDK President Takehiro Kamigama told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday, emphasizing opportunities with home-grown handset makers in the world's number-one smartphone market.
"I think sales at the established Chinese handset makers will grow ... Until now Chinese makers' market was only domestic but now about thirty percent of their sales are abroad, in emerging markets," he said.
Chinese companies such as Huawei Technologies Co, Lenovo Group Ltd and China Wireless Technologies Ltd's Coolpad, among the top five Chinese handset makers, are trying to secure a foothold in the United States while dipping their toe into markets in Russia, Brazil and Latin America, said Melissa Chau, senior analyst for the Asia Pacific region at research firm IDC.
"Chinese handset makers have ambitions to go beyond (the domestic market) because the kind of margins they're getting are not really that high," Chau said.
TOUGH TWO YEARS
Chinese players are driving TDK's expected 30 percent surge in SAW filter orders in the second half of the financial year to March from the first half, Kamigama said. He added the company would triple production of the component this year.
TDK's passive component division, which includes SAW filters, turned a profit in the April to June period for the first time in six quarters. The company as a whole is forecasting a 13 billion yen ($132 million) profit this financial year, after barely breaking even last year and slipping into the red the year before.
"These have been a tough two years," Kamigama said. "There are many areas where we've been losing out to competitors, including SAW filters."
Kamigama said the company took some time to clear out inventory of custom products at its Epcos subsidiary, where it focused its investment only to see demand falter from a principal customer.
The SAW filter market is now led by Japan's Murata, which also is number one in the market for ceramic capacitors, another vital smartphone component. TDK's share in the capacitor market has halved since 2004, according to Morgan Stanley MUFG analyst Shoji Sato.
"I want to get neck-and-neck (with Murata) again (in SAW filters) in the next fiscal year," Kamigama said, adding that he did not expect Chinese manufacturers to be able to compete in the market for the component anytime soon.
"SAW filters have not got to that point yet," he said. "The processes are unique and so are the materials, so I don't see anyone being able to imitate that anytime soon. It takes a lot of investment."
($1 = 98.5950 Japanese yen)
(Editing by Edmund Klamann and Mark Potter)