Can HTC’s billionaire chairwoman bail out a sinking ship?

The chairwoman in more prosperous times.
The chairwoman in more prosperous times.
Image: AP Photo/Peter Dejong
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Cher Wang, the billionaire co-founder and chairwoman of the troubled Taiwanese electronics firm HTC, is taking over many of the day-to-day duties of CEO Peter Chou, who has presided over an ugly decline in the company’s fortunes—it  has lost 70% of its market share and 90% of its market capitalization since the high-water mark in 2011.

Wang told the Financial Times on Sunday that she’ll up the amount of time she spends on HTC business from two to six days a week, and will take on the responsibility for sales, marketing, logistics and customer service, while Chou shifts his focus to products and innovation.

It’s not clear if the new reshuffling is a demotion for Chou or merely a divide-and-conquer response to HTC’s woes, but either way one of Asia’s richest women and most respected technology entrepreneurs has promised to re-engage with the nitty-gritty details of the business where she made her mark.

Wang’s family has a rich pedigree in Taiwan’s tech and business world: her father founded plastics and petrochemicals conglomerate Formosa Plastics Group and was once Taiwan’s second-richest man. Her sister helped found motherboard manufacturer First International Computer. Wang’s husband Wenchi Chan is the CEO of computer chip developer VIA Technologies, where she also holds the role of chairwoman. The couple’s net worth is $2.5 billion, according to Forbes.

According to a New York Times profile a few years ago, it was Wang who presciently pushed for the company to get out of the brutally competitive laptop business and get in early on handheld devices like smartphones. But after HTC’s decade of success making other companies’ devices and then its own branded handsets, the smartphone market has become just as cutthroat as laptops once were, and HTC has stumbled badly.

The executive rebalancing didn’t impress shareholders: HTC stock fell 1.8% in trading on Monday. ““The chairwoman could work eight days a week and investors wouldn’t necessarily care,” one fund manager told the Wall Street Journal. The scavengers are already circling: New rumors surface daily that the company might be snatched up by mainland rivals like Lenovo, Huawei, or ZTE. Amazon and Microsoft are both reportedly working with the company to advance their own nascent and/or frustrated mobile ambitions. It’s worth noting that the 55-year-old, Berkeley-educated Wang personally managed HTC’S relationship with Microsoft during the time when its phones primarily used the Windows Mobile operating system. “Once a year,” the Times noted in its profile, “she flies to Seattle and meets with Bill Gates and Steven A. Ballmer, the company’s chief executive.”

The last mobile-phone chief with close ties to Microsoft was Nokia’s Stephen Elop, who recently presided over the sale of the Finnish firm’s handset business to Microsoft. With Wang taking the helm, will HTC find itself similarly drawn into Microsoft’s orbit?