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Japan Display ponders new plant, IPO possible in 2014 at earliest

A signboard of Japan Display Inc is seen at its factory in Mobara, Chiba prefecture, June 3, 2013. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
A signboard of Japan Display Inc is seen at its factory in Mobara, Chiba prefecture, June 3, 2013. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Reiji Murai and Sophie Knight

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan Display, the world's top maker of screens for smartphones and tablets, will reach maximum capacity at a recently opened factory by next summer, CEO Shuichi Otsuka told Reuters on Thursday, raising the likelihood of an IPO early next year to fund a new facility.

Otsuka said in an interview that a plant opened in June in Mobara, Chiba prefecture, had already reached full capacity and that it is aiming to double capacity by June or July next year, reaching the plant's limit.

"A new factory is in our sights, but it's not time to make a decision on it yet," Otsuka said, adding that the company could use cash for capital spending if it turns a profit this year and "the earliest timing for an IPO would be in 2014."

A source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Thursday that the company was aiming for an IPO during the current financial year to next March that would value the entire business at about 800 billion yen ($8.04 billion).

Earlier this year Otsuka had said that the earliest launch for an IPO would be in fiscal 2014. The IPO could raise about $1 billion dollars, market watchers believe. On Thursday Otsuka referred only to calendar 2014 and refused to say whether an IPO could come in the January to March quarter.

Japan Display was formed in 2012 from display units of Sony Corp, Hitachi Ltd and Toshiba Corp, and is 70 percent backed by the government.

While other companies forged from troubled divisions at Japanese tech conglomerates, notably chipmakers Renesas Electronics Corp and Elpida Memory, struggle with tough foreign rivals and a strong yen, Japan Display has prospered by diversifying its client base, deciding early on to aggressively seek clients besides Apple Inc.

"We're always worried about a drop in demand from a supplier," Otsuka said. "That's why we've expanded our client base and have moved into making tablet screens too."

The CEO said the company's revenue jumped 50 percent in the April-June quarter and that it made a profit despite the costs of setting up the Mobara factory, to which it has pledged $2 billion worth of investment.

Although the company does not name its own customers, industry sources widely confirm that it is supplying screens for Google Inc's Nexus7 tablet and there are rumors it will make the displays for Amazon.com Inc's next Kindle Fire electronic reader.

Sources say Japan Display is the supplier for Nexus7's low-temperature polysilicon (LTPS) LCD screen, which boasts better resolution, touch-sensitivity and higher energy efficiency than the alternative amorphous silicon.

Makers used to struggle to scale LTPS to larger displays, but Japan Display has apparently solved the challenge. Otsuka says he expects LTPS to penetrate through to the mid-range market before long.

"To win you can't just focus on the high end. With LTPS we can go to the middle-end makers and say, 'Look, there's more you can do'", Otsuka said.

He also said he believed that the middle-end will grow as so-called "white-box" Chinese smartphone makers move to brand themselves and focus more on value, which will require higher specification models.

However, he doesn't see Chinese panel makers catching up to Japan Display and its two main competitors in small to midsize displays, Sharp Corp and LG Display Co Ltd. any time soon.

"Smartphones are differentiated by their displays. Is there any value in having three companies all using the same commoditized panel? We have to ensure that we continue adding value to our customized LTPS screens to ensure that doesn't happen, but I don't think it will."

($1 = 99.5350 Japanese yen)

(Editing by Matt Driskill)

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