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St. Petersburg's Jabil seeks to strengthen its brand amid brutal global competition and Trump's job promises

Simple question: How is global electronics manufacturer Jabil doing these days?

Except it's not an easy answer — despite Jabil reporting quarterly results and its shares soaring by double digits Friday morning to hit their highest price in more than a year.

The St. Petersburg company best known in recent years for making iPhone casings for Apple reported $5.1 billion in revenues for its first fiscal quarter of 2017, down slightly from $5.2 billion the same three months last year. Net income dropped to $88 million from $131.9 million.

Jabil CEO Mark Mondello, speaking to analysts in a conference call, said the financial results were stronger than management anticipated, "reflecting the second-best quarter in Jabil's 50-year history in terms of both revenue and core operating income."

Wall Street investors apparently agreed, driving Jabil shares up more than 12 percent by the close of Friday's markets, topping $24 — a stock price not seen since early December a year ago.

"Jabil has evolved into a proud owner of a diverse set of outstanding businesses, businesses that offer services and solutions with specialized and differentiated capabilities to a broad range of end markets," Mondello told analysts.

"We are the brand behind the world's best brands," he said. "As a management team, we have a lofty goal for Jabil's brand, a goal to become the world's most advanced manufacturing solutions company."

Great branding ambitions. But let's pause a moment.

I've covered Jabil for decades and remain impressed with the intensity of innovation, sheer depth of a corporate culture spread across 27 countries outside the United States, and the personal pride Jabil's workforce has long exhibited. Jabil managers are typically smart and all too aware they operate amid globally cutthroat competition. The fact that Jabil continues to adapt and scrap for new business opportunities should be a role model for any startup or established company — anywhere.

But let us also be honest. Jabil, like any multibillion-dollar public corporation, faces headwinds, especially in a technology sector confronted with constant, rapid change every day. To name just a few:

• Jabil's recent successes are closely tied to making iPhone casings for Apple, its largest customer generating more than 20 percent of Jabil's business. Jabil is diversifying its customer base into health care, product packaging and maybe even wearable tech working with sports clothing maker Under Armour. But that takes time. And to be frank, riding Apple's coattails with iPhone sales has been a historic rocket ride.

• The compensation of Jabil executives, disclosed this month, reflect a tougher business climate. Mondello's pay stayed at $10.5 million or so, but other senior execs saw their pay drop sharply by more than 20 percent.

• Jabil has about 138,000 employees worldwide. That's down from more than 150,000 a few years ago, reflecting a tightening of the workforce to control costs. Earlier this fall, it laid off about 400 employees worldwide. About 100 were in St. Petersburg.

• Finally, consider Jabil's basic numbers in recent years. Its revenues of $18.4 billion in fiscal 2016 are higher than any time in recent years. But its net income in 2016 of $254 million is down $40 million from 2015 and off more than a third of what Jabil earned in 2012.

• Let's throw out one more wild card for Jabil: Donald Trump. As president, Trump wants to pressure U.S. companies to bring manufacturing jobs back from places like China, where Jabil is deeply invested. This will be interesting to watch.

Bottom line: Jabil remains a cutting-edge, vital company. But we're talking brutal competition — and now some political curve balls — out there.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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