Sharp Charts Course for the Future at National Dealer Meeting in San Antonio

by Robert Palmer | 12/10/15

Sharp’s National Dealer Meeting, held December 3–6 at the JW Marriott in San Antonio, Texas, was a whirlwind of activity from beginning to end. It was an important event for Sharp given the firm’s recent financial difficulties. Despite continued strong performance from its Business Solutions group, Sharp has struggled financially while transitioning from a consumer-oriented business to that of a B2B-focused company. As a result, there has been no shortage of news, speculation, and rumor surrounding Sharp’s long-term prospects since its last dealer meeting two years ago.

With close to 900 attendees — including 650 representatives from more than 200 different dealers — Sharp needed a strong showing at this year’s event, not only to allay concerns within the dealer community but also to articulate its vision for long-term growth and sustainability. From our perspective, Sharp hit a home run. The three-day event was jam packed with educational content, a huge product showcase, and several general sessions from top Sharp executives that specifically addressed the firm’s current challenges and strategic outlook.

Senior VP of Sales Laura Blackmer kicked off the opening session and she set the tone right way. Blackmer explained that Sharp is committed to becoming a “different kind of company” and building the pathways to being a strong business partner. A big part of this strategy is listening to dealer feedback and doing what it takes to help dealers grow their businesses. “What sets us apart already is our kinship with our dealers, our partners, and others in our universe,” she said. Indeed, Sharp went to great lengths throughout the dealer meeting to hammer home the message that it wants to serve as the primary facilitator for bringing new connections and new opportunities to its channel partners.

Blackmer then turned the stage over to Kazushi Mukai, executive managing officer of Sharp Corporation and president of Sharp Business Solutions. Mukai’s presentation was an important part of the overall program. As the conduit to Sharp Corporation in Japan, it was Mukai who needed to explain Sharp’s overall business strategy to help dealers understand where the company is today, where it is headed, and how its document solutions business will play a role in the overall process.  

Mukai admitted that Sharp has been struggling through a restructuring process that will result in a complete transformation of the company. The firm has been shedding many of the consumer-oriented business categories that have been accumulated over the years — a process that has taken significant time and has caused a great deal of speculation regarding the company’s future. Nevertheless, Mukai said that Sharp has successfully navigated its way through those changes, the final stage of which relates to its LCD display business. Mukai said that Sharp has amassed a significant amount of technology and expertise in its LCD business over the years and the firm is currently exploring a variety of options for that segment. 

According to Mukai, once Sharp emerges from the transformation process the Business Solutions Company will serve as the primary growth engine for Sharp. “This is a very exciting time for all of us in the Business Solutions Company as Sharp enters a new phase of renewal,” he proclaimed. “I am proud that our group will be a key part of that process.”

Under the new structure, Sharp will be comprised of five different companies. The Business Solutions Company includes Sharp’s Document Solutions, Aquos Board products, and Professional Displays. Other business units include the Energy Solutions Company, the Display Device Company, the Electronic Components Company, and the Consumer Electronics Company. Mukai said the new structure represents the biggest change in Sharp’s 103-year history. Moreover, Mukai told the audience that Sharp would be expanding its investment in various product categories to drive future growth for itself and for dealers.

Sharp: The Great Facilitator

Next up was Doug Albregts, President of Sharp Imaging and Information Company of America (SIICA). Albregts is well respected in the industry because of his open and candid nature and his willingness to address issues head on. Those qualities were evident during the opening session, and Albregts did a masterful job of putting Sharp’s recent performance in a much better light than some might have considered before.

Albregts noted that if you look specifically at SIICA, the financials for Sharp are all positive. SIICA achieved its sixth straight fiscal quarter of revenue growth, despite exiting various non-core businesses. On a global basis, Sharp MFP revenues grew 6.5 percent in the latest fiscal compared with the prior period. Meanwhile, profits are also on the rise. Sharp’s U.S. Document Business achieved one of the most profitable periods in its history, while SIICA grew its operating profit by 145 percent over the prior fiscal period — the sixth consecutive fiscal of operating income growth for that business.

Sharp is reinvesting those profits to drive mutual growth for itself and its partners. Indeed, Albregts said that Sharp is now entering a phase that it has labeled “hyper-growth mode.” He admitted, however, that the industry is facing numerous challenges. “The core of what we do — counting color and monochrome pages and charging people for it — is declining,” he said. “The industry has had its smallest Q1 to Q2 period since 2011.”

From here, Albregts promptly laid out a strategy that Sharp has been building over the past two years. In a nutshell, Sharp’s vision is to become the premier facilitator of managed network solutions for the imaging industry — a provocative statement to say the least. To accomplish that goal, Sharp will lean heavily on its partnership with Tech Data.

Like many of its competitors, Sharp is looking to leverage the smart MFP as a hub for delivering various network solutions and services in an overall effort to expand and diversify. Albregts pointed out that the MFP remains the primary path to profit for dealers, but the ability to retain that MFP business is strengthened dramatically when dealers can diversify their offerings in each account.

All of this is built around the changing dynamics of the office. Businesses need access to information at anytime and from any location; they need devices and software built on an integrated platform that provides secure access to that information; and all of this must be accomplished in a mobile-friendly environment. While transitioning to network solutions is not necessarily a new strategy, Albregts argues that Sharp’s approach is unique because of its relationship with Tech Data.

Albregts was quick to point out that Tech Data is much more than a logistics and fulfillment company for Sharp. For example, Sharp is developing a portal for dealers that will basically open up access to all of Tech Data’s products and solutions. “Our relationships will facilitate a custom solution for your customers, delivered your way and on one invoice to their specified location,” Albregts said. “All with the idea of retaining the copier business.”

New Products and Solutions

While there was plenty of talk around solutions and strategy, many folks come to these dealer events to learn about new products, and Sharp did not disappoint. Mike Marusic, senior VP of Marketing and Operations for Sharp, walked attendees through a total of 13 new products, ranging from 10 workgroup color models to a high-speed monochrome line with speeds up to 120 ppm. The workgroup color lineup includes 10 new A3 models ranging in speeds from 30 to 60 ppm, all leveraging the same engine and design platform.

Based on a new clean sheet design, each model will share a common user interface and the same toner supplies, a point that was met with resounding applause from the audience. Sharp will begin shipping some of the new workgroup color models at the beginning of next year, with the rest of the lineup to follow over the next six months. The new production machines includes two light production models supporting a Fiery controller option, and the MX-M905 high speed monochrome MFP expected to launch at the end of 2016.

Sharp also showcased a bevy of software and solutions during the event. The show floor was packed with partner solutions from companies such as PrintFleet, Y Soft, Drivve, Prism, and so many others too numerous to mention. Many of these companies were showcasing solutions running on the Sharp OSA platform. Sharp also used the Dealer Meeting to launch several new solutions and strategic relationships with companies such as Clover, Fujitsu and Tech Data Mobile Solutions. More coverage on the solutions side of the show can be found on our sister website WorkflowOTG.com.

One of the more intriguing announcements focused on a partnership with MWAi, which announced that it has integrated its FORZA solutions with the Sharp MICAS platform. MICAS, which stands for Machine Intelligence Call Assistance System, is a cloud-based device management application that uses Sharp’s Remote Email Diagnostics (R.E.D.) to collect device data and alerts. The system also offers remote service capabilities and OEM device support through the MICAS Agent, which is software installed locally at the customer site.

Integrating service management with the FORZA ERP results in a very powerful platform. “FORZA, integrated with MICAS, provides a seamless and unprecedented means of communication from the customer and ultimately removes manual, on-site support with remote help desk initiatives,” said Michael T. Stramaglio, President and CEO of MWA Intelligence, Inc., in a prepared release. “With the innovative technologies designed and developed by Sharp and MWAi’s open-architecture FORZA platform, the integration was the next logical progression to bring service and ERP together as one solution.”

Our Take

While there is no way of knowing Sharp’s goals for its Dealer Meeting, it is likely that those targets were surpassed. Dealers were highly engaged throughout the three-day event and among those that we spoke with the feedback was quite positive. Interestingly, there seemed to be very little discussion among attendees regarding Sharp’s financial difficulties or its long-term future. Indeed, those issues seem to be mostly behind Sharp now, which is amazing when you consider how bad things looked not that long ago. This speaks not only to Sharp’s ability to execute during challenging times but also to the capabilities of the management team.

Sharp has assembled an exceptional executive team in the U.S., led by Doug Albregts, Laura Blackmer, and Mike Marusic. Each is highly engaged and focused on driving growth for the channel, which is likely why there seemed to be such mutual respect from both sides. This comes across not just in the delivery of speeches but more when you see them in action one-on-one. This team gets it, and they adamantly believe that the channel will play a pivotal role in the reemergence of Sharp.

Of course, Sharp still needs to execute on its strategy. The key question is: can Sharp truly become “the premier facilitator of managed network solutions for the imaging industry?” It is a rather bold statement considering that many of Sharp’s competitors are marching down a similar path — even more so when you consider that some of those rival companies have a storied history in network services with significant innovation in IT-related products and services. Whether or not dealers will utilize Tech Data as anything more than a fulfillment partner remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that Sharp is taking the necessary steps to solidify its operations, and now the hard work begins.

Robert Palmer is chief analyst and a managing partner for BPO Media, which publishes The Imaging Channel and Workflow magazines. As a market analyst and industry consultant, Palmer has more than 25 years experience in the imaging industry covering technology and business sectors for prominent market research firms such as Lyra Research and InfoTrends. Palmer is a popular speaker and he presents regularly at industry conferences and trade events in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. He is also active in a variety of imaging industry forums and currently serves on the board of directors for the Managed Print Services Association (MPSA). Contact him at robert@bpomedia.com.