After big loss, Panasonic president says firm close to profit at joint factory with Tesla

Panasonic Corp. is on the verge of turning a profit at the giant U.S. battery factory it operates with Tesla Inc., finally yielding returns for a company that has shelled out billions to make power cells for Elon Musk.

Panasonic already makes money on batteries for the Model S and Model X, which it produces domestically, President Kazuhiro Tsuga said in an interview. It’s now ramping up output at the two-year-old Gigafactory in Nevada, which is dedicated to making batteries for the Model 3 but still losing money, he said.

“We will be in a position to deliver profits at a very early stage,” Tsuga said, declining to specify a timeline. “There is no doubt about it, once we complete the current buildup.”

Panasonic’s investment in the Gigafactory will exceed ¥200 billion ($1.8 billion) once that expansion is done, Tsuga said. His bet on Tesla has been a source of concern for investors amid setbacks, as well as the delayed production of Model 3 sedans and the erratic behavior of Musk. Tesla last week reported a surprise quarterly profit, inspiring optimism that the maker of electric vehicles will become a sustainable business.

Panasonic produces cells, which Tesla uses to make battery packs for its EVs. The Osaka-based company currently has 11 production lines operating at the Gigafactory and is adding two more by the end of the year for a combined capacity of 35 gigawatt-hours. As Tesla rapidly increased Model 3 production, Panasonic dispatched more than 300 people to Nevada to make sure it can keep up. That made it difficult to assess profitability, Tsuga said.

“Once things settle down, you can control profit on a line-by-line basis,” he said. “The first 10 lines are pretty much already there.”

The company’s Tesla operations will begin to contribute to profit from the current quarter, Chief Financial Officer Hirokazu Umeda told reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday. The overall energy division, which also makes batteries for other carmakers, posted a ¥7.3 billion loss in the three months ended Sept. 30. Sales rose 33 percent. Its shares ended Thursday down more than 5 percent at their lowest in almost nine months.

“We are finally at a place where we can move in lock-step with Tesla and make as many batteries as they make cars,” Tsuga said. “It’s a relief, because they went through hell this September. And so did we.”

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