TOKYO - Daikin Industries, the world's largest maker of air conditioning equipment, is turning to Africa for further expansion, 10 years after a successful gamble on sharing its key technology with a Chinese company.
As Japanese manufacturers such as Panasonic stepped back from home appliances over a decade ago to avoid price wars with Asian rivals, Daikin did the opposite, going head-to-head with the likes of South Korea's LG.
Fighting off low-cost competitors through local partnerships and acquisitions, Daikin grabbed top share in markets such as India. Africa, where LG and China's Haier are established giants, may seem like another difficult target for Daikin.
But Yoshihiro Mineno, Daikin's senior executive in charge of Asia, said the company is used to silencing critics, recalling the controversy more than 15 years ago over its decision to target mass markets overseas.
"Many sceptics at the time said it would be impossible to make profits in the 'volume zone' in Asia, and that it was pointless to invest there," Mineno told Reuters in an interview.
Conventional wisdom, he said, held that the 94-year-old company should focus on high-end markets.
Daikin saw limited potential for growth in that area, however, and executives knew the company would have to focus on low cost and high volume if it wanted to boost its global presence.
The company's market value now exceeds those of electronics conglomerates Panasonic Corp and Hitachi Ltd.
"If advanced technologies or added-value products are your only selling points, your rivals are likely to catch up and overtake you," said Hideki Yasuda, an analyst at the research arm of Ace Securities.
"But Daikin's business model is backed by cost competitiveness," Yasuda added. "It's among a few Japanese companies that can compete head to head with the Chinese."
The United States, the world's largest market for air conditioning, has been tougher to crack.
Daikin has struggled to compete with local rivals such as United Technologies' Carrier and Johnson Controls' York, which specialise in ducted air conditioning.
Daikin acquired the U.S. company Goodman in 2012 to strengthen its expertise in that area, but has made little headway.
The prospect of tariffs from a trade war between the United States and China adds another headache: Daikin assembles air conditioners in the U.S. using some Chinese-made parts.
Mineno said the company may need to export components from elsewhere in Asia if the trade war escalates.
In 2006, Daikin took over Malaysian contract manufacturer OYL Industries for $2.1 billion. The deal boosted its purchasing power, and provided access to cheaper global suppliers and nimble product development.
Two years later, it shocked the industry by agreeing to a partnership with major Chinese rival Gree Electric Appliances. The deal gave Daikin mass-market production capabilities in return for access to its advanced inverter technology, which saves electricity by efficiently regulating temperatures.
Critics said the move amounted to self-sabotage because of the potential for such valuable components to be copied.
The technology did end up in air conditioners from other Chinese companies. But Daikin expanded production so quickly with Gree's help that it drove smaller rivals out of the market.
"We effectively created a market for inverter air conditioners with Gree," Mineno said.
Gree is still a partner in producing low-end models and components for Daikin, although they compete in most other segments.
"Being the No. 1 player in inverter machines gave us access to government officials and allowed us to influence regulations," Mineno said, adding that stricter energy consumption rules, for instance, made Daikin inverters more attractive.
Daikin's sales have tripled since the OYL acquisition, with overseas markets now accounting for 80 percent of its $20 billion annual revenue.
By contrast, other Japanese manufacturers have struggled to maintain their edge in products that include televisions, smartphone screens and semiconductors.
Experts say most failed to innovate enough to continue charging more than their Chinese and Korean rivals, eventually giving up both market share and margins.
INDIA TO AFRICA
Executives said Daikin's biggest growth driver is India, where it has established itself as a top player despite competition from LG, Samsung Electronics and local manufacturers.
It appointed Indian industry veteran Kanwal Jeet Jawa to lead operations there, built a sales network and localised production with low-cost know-how from OYL.
Daikin's market share in room air conditioners in India jumped from less than 2 percent in 2010 to 17 percent over eight years, lifting the company to the top total sales spot of air conditioners for commercial buildings and industrial use.
Jawa will lead the expansion in Africa as well, the company said. It plans to set up a regional office in east Africa in a few months.
Jawa said Daikin would continue to aim for the volume zone.
"It's a very price-sensitive market," he said of Africa. "We want to use our leverage of Indian operations and we want to replicate what we have done in India."
Daikin is adding production capacity for further global expansion. It opened an assembly plant in Vietnam in May and plans another in Malaysia this year.
It is also considering a new Indian plant to help produce products for Africa, Jawa said.
Daikin has set a 2020 sales target of 90 billion yen ($812.71 million) for Africa and the Middle East, an increase of 11 percent from last year, but Mineno said it may need to revise that upward.
"Globally, I still see a lot of growth potential that can be unleashed by our volume-zone strategy," he said.
($1 = 110.7400 yen)