Hitachi in the UK – from TVs to trains (part 1)
Hitachi’s first foray into manufacturing the UK in the 1970s was extremely fraught. Undeterred, 10 years later, it established its European headquarters in the UK, where it has been located since. It has kept faith with the UK through turbulent times, establishing the global headquarters for its rail business in the UK in 2014.
Hitachi had a sales arm in the UK since 1970, marketing “portable monochrome television receivers, radios and record-players”. This was heralded in The Times as “another challenge on the home market from a Japanese rival” (1) noting that this was the third Japanese group to enter the UK home market in recent months (the other two being Sony and Matsushita).
The enemy within the walls
As with much of Japanese manufacturing investment overseas at the time, setting up production within the European Community (EC) was done to avoid accusations of dumping, and to ensure there was enough local content to satisfy the European Commission. Hitachi initially considered a greenfield site in Washington in the North East of England for manufacturing TVs in 1975, shortly after Sony and Matsushita had established manufacturing in the UK. This attracted such hostility from UK domestic competitors worried about overcapacity that Hitachi shelved the idea.
Hitachi was hoping to source cathode ray tubes from British firm Mullard, the only UK manufacturer of colour TV tubes, who were initially very reluctant. They maintained in 1977 that they were not ready to accept a Hitachi offer to buy 25,000 of its tubes a year from 1980. Jack Akerman, Mullard’s managing director, sounded positively sniffy about Hitachi’s technology. “We must be absolutely satisfied that our merchandise is going to be used in a technical environment where it will perform well and live well. If all the technical points are answered and we are satisfied, then it would be acceptable for Mullard and Hitachi to trade together in the event that Hitachi’s new factory were welcomed to this country by the Government.”(2)
The Times ran an opinion piece by the commercial editor Derek Harris asking if Hitachi was going to become “the enemy within the walls”. (3) It detailed a rumour that Finnish made TV tubes (from a partly Hitachi owned company) might supply Hitachi in the UK instead, in return for British fighter aircraft exports to Finland, in an offset deal between governments. It described how Mullard’s real concern was not technological compatibility so much that the British TV industry had substantial overcapacity, so Mullard supplying Hitachi would simply result in damage to existing UK customers of Mullard such as Rank, Thorn and Mullard’s sister company Pye (both were owned by the Dutch company Philips).
Harris quotes Akerman as saying “those first few years will be as smooth as silk. But then – watch out. In Japan they are planning for the year 2000, They want to dominate the electronic equipment business and, as we have said consistently, we don’t blame them.”
“Critically endangered” by tube imports from Japan
Derek Harris wrote a further piece in The Times in October 1978 (4) noting the warning from the European Electronic Component Manufacturers’ Association that the European electronics industry was being critically endangered by cheap imports from Japanese TV component makers. The tubes represented a third of the value of a TV set, and out of every 100 colour sets sold in the EEC, 33 contained tubes made in Japan. This was to intensify in the early 1980s when licensing agreements expired, opening the EEC to the larger colour TV sets made in Japan. UK TV manufacturers had an informal agreement with the Japanese industry on import restraint, but nonetheless, it was estimated that Britain’s TV and audio industry was operating at only 50% capacity.
The UK government then introduced Hitachi to the General Electric Company (the UK company that eventually became Marconi, not the US company General Electric) and the two companies formed a joint venture, GEC-Hitachi Television Ltd, in December 1978 and adopted an existing GEC television factory in Aberdare, Wales, along with a workforce of over 2,000.
Hitachi takes over GEC factory
The British continued to manage the plant, and Hitachi invested nearly £3m in new plant and equipment, and provided technical support. At first sales were good, building up a 10% UK market share. By the early 1980s, overmanning and industrial strife led to losses. GEC sold its half of the company to Hitachi in March 1984 and it became Hitachi Consumer Products Ltd. Hitachi instituted a one union policy and reduced the workforce to 800. The plant also began to manufacture hi-fi equipment. Mullard was a supplier to Hitachi, along with Tabuchi Electric who had set up production in the UK in 1985. Philips changed the Mullard name to Philips Components in 1988.
Hitachi also started a video cassette recorder plant in Germany and eventually the German plant also manufactured TVs and the Wales plant also manufacturered VCRs, with German made cylinder heads and chassis being shipped to the UK and British made PCBs being exported to Germany. This meant the local content for both TVs and VCRs were around 80-90%.(5)
The bubble bursts
In the 1990s competition from cheaper TVs and VCRs made in developing countries made it difficult for Hitachi and other UK based Japanese manufacturers to compete. The Aberdare plant was closed in 2001, with the loss of 700 jobs. Hitachi said it would focus on higher value added products in Europe such as plasma screens, projectors for home cinema, DVD camcorders and in-car navigation systems. After several years of losses, Hitachi Consumer Products UK Ltd was wound up in 1995-1997 and the business transferred to Hitachi Home Electronics, until it too was liquidated in 2003, with remaining assets and business transferred to Hitachi Europe.
(1) The Times, 21 August 1970, p 20
(2) The Times, 10 November 1977, p 20
(3) The Times, 18 November 1977, p 21
(4) The Times, 4 October 1978, p 22
(5) Much of this post is based on pages 304-9 of Japanese Manufacturing Investment in Europe, Its impact on the UK Economy, Roger Strange, Routledge 1993
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