Tesla’s oldest battery partner, Panasonic, is finding itself at a crossroads once more. With Chief Executive Kazuhiro Tsuga poised to step down next June, the massive Japanese conglomerate is feeling some pressure to optimize and streamline itself. To accomplish this, Panasonic may need to channel one of its key battery partners, Tesla, and its CEO, Elon Musk, to make the bold decisions needed to thrive in a new era.
When Tsuga took Panasonic’s reins eight years ago, he stated that his first priority would be to return the massive conglomerate into a profitable “normal company.” He did not disappoint. Tsuga stemmed a record loss by pulling the company out of the plasma television market and repositioning the firm as an automotive-and-housing conglomerate. The veteran Japanese executive also did something unexpected: he initiated a $5 billion battery manufacturing tie-up with Tesla in 2014.
Tsuga’s strategy of partnering with Tesla, then an unproven electric car maker, and a CEO known for a Tony Stark-like persona, was considered a courageous move on the Japanese conglomerate’s part. The partnership of the experienced Japanese veteran and assertive US startup bore fruit, with Gigafactory Nevada becoming the world’s largest battery facility. Its operations with Tesla are even closing in on its first annual profit. But the journey to this point was not easy.
As noted in a Financial Times report, Panasonic and Tesla clashed over the years, and these tensions reportedly manifested themselves when the Japanese firm decided to not invest in Gigafactory Shanghai. This resulted in Tesla partnering with other suppliers like LG Chem and Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., Limited (CATL). Tesla has also announced plans to start producing its own 4680 tabless cells for its vehicles and energy storage products.
As the outgoing Panasonic CEO prepares to step down in June, his promise of running a “normal company” is leaving a bitter aftertaste to the company he will leave behind. Over the years, rivals such as Sony and Hitachi have gone on massive divestment initiatives to streamline their businesses. And while Panasonic has followed a similar path, executives continue to struggle to define what kind of company it is. Newly-appointed chief executive Yuki Kusumi, who is poised to succeed Tsuga, referenced this when he stated that Panasonic could achieve growth if it could optimize businesses that excelled in its portfolio, which currently stretches across a whopping 520 subsidiaries.
The outgoing Panasonic CEO, as a final departing measure, is hoping to change the company into a holding company structure, which is similar to a move that rival Sony will make around April. According to Panasonic, the shift, which is expected to be completed in 2022, could help accelerate decision-making across the conglomerate by running its units independently. Yet even this strategy poses challenges for Panasonic since unlike Sony, which has found its “core” in the games, films, animation, and the music segment, Panasonic’s “core” still seems unclear. This difference is evident when one looks at the two Japanese firms’ performance in the market. Sony has increased 78% since February while Panasonic has dropped 30%.
But things may be looking up for Panasonic. When he announced Panasonic’s shift to a holding company, Tsuga resurrected car batteries as a “core” by branding it as an “energy business.” Thanks in part to this, as well as the ongoing expansion of profitable projects like Gigafactory Nevada, Panasonic’s next CEO, Yuki Kusumi, would be taking control of a company that is in a much better financial position as the one handed over to his predecessor. As highlighted by the Financial Times, if Kusumi would like to usher in a revival or a breakthrough of sorts for Panasonic in the coming years, he would have to channel less of his predecessor’s “normal company” strategy and more of the boldness characteristic of partners like Tesla.
Markets like the battery industry are only just heating up, after all. While Tesla has stated that it intends to keep and grow its partnership with suppliers like Panasonic despite its own battery production plans, competitors like LG Chem and CATL are not sitting out the next few years. LG has even posted a bold challenge of sorts to the Japanese conglomerate recently, with the South Korean firm stating that it has every intention to become Tesla’s main battery supplier in the near future, effectively taking Panasonic’s place. With some Elon Musk-style boldness, however, perhaps Panasonic could still keep its lead in the battery sector, and perhaps even increase its reach in the growing EV segment.