Paradox at Philips Design


Carney, 49, has a soft, even voice and, aside from neatly cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a few crow’s feet around his eyes, a baby face. This is the man with the considerable task of bringing Philips (PHG), Europe’s largest electronics maker, back to life. Philips grew into a global design powerhouse during the 1990s and 2000s, becoming one of the most coveted places for young creatives to work. Over the decades, the firm has made everything from flatscreen televisions to light bulbs to life-saving health equipment. In 2011, Philips celebrated a record-breaking number of international design awards. Thanks to the elegant, streamlined aesthetics of its products, in the most rarified design circles, Philips ranks with the likes of Apple (AAPL) and BMW.

Its business hasn’t fared so well, however. The slow-down in Europe has disproportionately hurt the company. Its lighting and healthcare divisions have struggled as global construction slowed and consumers and governments alike cut back on spending. The firm swung to a fourth-quarter loss, posting a net loss of 160 million euros ($211 million) after a profit of 465 million euros ($615 million) a year earlier. Near-term prospects have been anything but bright, with analysts from Bank of America (BAC), Citi (C) and JPMorgan (JPM) all issuing stark warnings in the past weeks. “We are cautious about 2012, given the uncertainty in the global economy, and Europe in particular,” chief executive Frans van Houten said in a statement when the company issued its last earnings report. Now, Carney finds himself with one of the world’s most coveted design roles — and perhaps one of its most challenging.

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