Long-Term Agreements Aren’t Always Best

My caution light is flashing. {complink 379|Apple Inc.} committed to spend $3.9 billion over the next two years with several advanced LCD manufacturers. In the release of its first quarter results, Apple's COO, Tom Cook, stated that the company had executed long-term agreements (LTAs) with multiple vendors to guarantee availability of advanced LCD panels for the iPhone and the iPad.

Without knowing more about the details of the agreements, it is impossible to evaluate whether or not these agreements are winners for all parties involved. I have no doubt that Apple sees value in committing to the expenditures. I am also confident that the major LCD manufacturers that worked with Apple on these deals — {complink 3074|LG Electronics Inc.}, {complink 5648|Toshiba Corp.}, {complink 4907|Sharp Electronics Corp.}, and {complink 4751|Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.} — would surely welcome a large pre-payment and guaranteed sales. So, it's an obvious win-win for all parties, right? Why, then, do I see an increasing number of flashing caution lights whenever I think about LTAs?

On the face of it, LTAs make good sense. But if you've ever been on the supply side of an LTA, you almost certainly have a fistful of reasons to think otherwise. And it’s not a fistful of dollars we're talking about. More and more, larger companies are enticing suppliers with highly attractive revenue potentials in exchange for guaranteed delivery and fixed costs, meeting difficult stocking requirements, working through weak forecasting models, and wrestling with an overall inflexibility on the side of the buyer. Often blinded by the revenue, suppliers will enter into LTAs that would normally cause apprehension.

For the supplier that is also the manufacturer, the potential for long-term agreements to turn into supply chain nightmares is greatly reduced. But in this case, the supply chain risk actually lies with the manufacturer's smaller customers and distributors. Since the original contract manufacturer (OCM) can re-prioritize production and scheduling to meet the requirements of an LTA for one customer, it can also leave others waiting for product and having to handle the frustration of missed deliveries and the consequences of constantly pushed-out due dates.

A supplier that is not the OCM has an opportunity for profitability under an LTA agreement. If the profit is dependent on the performance of the manufacturer and on the supplier having a reasonable customer, supplier beware. From this standpoint, LTA agreements can definitely be a challenge. From a customer's viewpoint, shifting the burden of performance to the supplier can be a definite winner. But this only holds true if the supplier genuinely takes on the responsibility to execute consistently.

While a contract can bind two parties in black-and-white in terms of dollars and deliverables, an LTA has to be crafted more in the spirit of a partnership agreement. Both parties must have each other's interests and welfare in mind. This is not always easy. When you review or negotiate a long-term agreement, remember: It is long-term . If an agreement is later discovered to be unbalanced, it will seem like a really long, long, long-term agreement. I think that having open dialog with clear communication and expectations of performance is critical, regardless of which side of an LTA you're on.

I encourage suppliers to be absolutely sure that they can perform 100 percent, even through the what-ifs. You can imagine how a $3.9 billion opportunity from Apple could cause any supplier to overestimate its ability to perform and place itself in jeopardy. Having said all this, I believe shining bright lights on LTA contracts can cause my caution light to dim. How about yours?

4 comments on “Long-Term Agreements Aren’t Always Best

  1. AnalyzeThis
    February 16, 2011

    Good article, Todd.

    I agree with most of your opinions here, I too believe LTA's seem to make a lot of good sense in theory, but in practice — especially in the tech sector — I personally would tend to avoid entering into one unless absolutely necessary. I hate to use a cliche, but there's that whole old saying about putting all your eggs in one basket which comes to mind.

    That being said, I think any deal Apple makes is probably going to be a very good one… for Apple, at least. Apple obviously can demand far more favorable terms than, well, pretty much any other company! And the suppliers/vendors will likely benefit too, as the prestige of working with Apple will likely bring in new business.

    I'm not saying it's a “win-win” (like I said, Apple is nearly certainly getting the better end of things), but in this particular situation with this particular company, LTAs probably do make a lot of sense for a wide variety of reasons.

    But most of us aren't working at Apple. And for us, we need to heed these flashing caution lights and not just drive right through them.

  2. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 16, 2011

    Great points, Todd–you outline some of the issues that take place deeper in the supply chain. If anyone on the manufacturing side has to shift capacity for another customer, the potential for disruption is significant. I remember a similar agreement–a long time ago–where AMD agreed to dedicate a certain amount of its fab capacity for products Alcatel needed. AMD then had to use that capacity for its own products and the deal ended in a lawsuit. I think LTAs are rife will all kinds of potential problems and the panel makers should be very clear about what they can and cannot deliver and under what conditions.

  3. SP
    February 17, 2011

    Indeed an interesting article. What is the regular length of long term agreements? I feel when company's like Apple get into agreement for a product i am sure they will have multiple suppliers for same products.

  4. Anand
    February 17, 2011

         I too had similar opinions expressed by you that “any deal Apple makes is probably going to be a very good one”. But I feel the point Todd Ballew making is slightly different. He is analysing the the full Supply chain ecosystem. In his article he mentions although the deal may be good for both the parties involved, but it might affect the customers of supplier if supplier himself is manufacturer.



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