Sony To Rely On 3-D To Spur Return To Profit

TOKYO (AP) — Sony Corp., maker of the PlayStation 3, stayed in the red last business year but predicts a return to profit as restructuring and an aggressive 3-D rollout bear fruit.

The Tokyo-based company Thursday reported progress toward profitability, booking a 40.8 billion yen ($439 million) loss for the year ended March 31. That's an improvement from the previous year's 98.9 billion yen loss, which was Sony's first annual red ink in 14 years.

The electronics and entertainment giant credited LCD televisions and digital cameras for helping drive its turnaround. It also cited its life insurance unit, where revenue surged 58 percent.

"We began to see improvements gain momentum from the second half last year," said chief financial officer Nobuyuki Oneda.

Sony expects to climb back into the black in the year through March 2011. It forecasts a net profit of 50 billion yen on revenue of 7.6 trillion yen.

Since taking over in 2005, Chief Executive Howard Stringer has been trying to unite the company's sprawling businesses, improve efficiency and rein in costs. He strengthened control over Sony a year ago by calling for a companywide reorganization and naming a new leadership team, which includes former IBM executive George Bailey to the newly created position of "chief transformation officer."

The Welsh-born CEO's initiatives appear to be paying off. Sony cut costs by more than 330 billion yen last year, beating its own targets, the company said. Procurement costs have declined almost 20 percent, and it has shut 11 plants since December 2008.

As a result, Sony swung to an operating profit of 31.8 billion yen ($342 million) after a 227.8 billion yen operating loss the previous year. Some analysts view operating profit, which excludes taxes, as the best indication of a company's pure business performance.

The company is leaner, nimbler and cooperating under a more united front to make a big 3-D push this year.

Atul Goyal, a longtime tech analyst at CLSA, described Sony as a changed company.

"I remember the time when this company used to be the one which always overpromised and always underdelivered," he said.

Sony's restructuring involves exiting unprofitable businesses — not just layoffs — as well as forming new partnerships. It sold, for example, its HBO operations in Central Europe and its measuring systems business to Mori Seiki Co. Meanwhile, it has teamed up with ESPN to film sports events in 3-D, and it recently announced a joint venture with Discovery Communications and Imax Corp. to establish the world's first 3-D television channel.

Its new mindset convinced Goyal to change his rating on Sony shares to "outperform" in May 2009 after 21 months at "sell." He gave Sony a further upgrade to "buy" three months ago for its 3-D plans.

Goyal worries, however, that Sony's changes may have arrived a tad too late. They will undoubtedly help Sony grow, but the company is unlikely to return to the "good-old glory days" given the stiff competition it now faces, he said.

Indeed, rivals have caught up — and surpassed — Sony over the past decade. Samsung Electronics Co. is the world's biggest maker of flat-panel TVs, and Apple Inc.'s iPod digital music player dominates over Sony's Walkman. Samsung and others like Panasonic Corp. are also planning their own aggressive forays into 3-D.

But Sony's Oneda said the company is not worried.

Considering the breadth of its holdings, the company holds an "advantageous position," he said.

This year, Sony plans to release 3-D compatible "Bravia" LCD TVs, Blu-ray disc players, personal computers and digital cameras. The company said it expects that 10 percent of the 25 million TVs it aims to sell this year will be 3-D.

The company expects TVs, games and mobile unit Sony Ericsson — three key but previously unprofitable businesses — to return to profit this year.

Sony booked sales of 7.21 trillion yen ($77.6 billion) last business year, down 7 percent.

Higher box office revenue and hit albums like Michael Jackson's "This is It" soundtrack were offset by lower revenue from its core electronics business. A stronger yen, which hurts Japanese exporters, lowered revenue by about 440 billion yen, Sony said.

For the January-March quarter, Sony posted a net loss of 56.6 billion yen ($608 million) on revenue of 1.72 trillion yen ($18.4 billion).

Its goal is to sell 60 percent more TV sets this year. It also aims to sell 15 million PlayStation 3 consoles and 23 million compact digital cameras. Last year, it sold 13 million PlayStation 3 units and 21 million digital cameras.

Sony shares have climbed about 19 percent this year, beating a flat performance by the Nikkei 225 stock average. In trading Thursday ahead of its earnings release, Sony shares jumped 4.1 percent to 3,165 yen.

Sony reports earnings based on Japanese accounting standards.