Toshiba ups the ante in chip unit sale with attack on Western Digital

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Toshiba Corp has told Western Digital Corp not to interfere in the sale of its prized chip unit, rejecting claims it has breached a joint venture contract and threatening legal action.

The clash between Toshiba and Western Digital - both its business partner and one of the bidders for the chip unit - risks delaying or even quashing an auction that the Japanese conglomerate is depending on to plug a US$9 billion (S$12.6 billion) hole in its accounts.

Although the two companies jointly operate Toshiba's main semiconductor plant, Western Digital is not seen as a favoured bidder for the world's second biggest NAND chip producer, having put in a much lower offer than other suitors, sources with knowledge of the matter, have said.

The US firm has argued the Japanese company is violating their contract by transferring their joint venture's rights to the newly formed unit and has asked for exclusive negotiating rights. Chief executive Steve Milligan is currently visiting Japan to press its case.

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But in a May 3 letter sent by Toshiba's lawyers, the TVs-to-nuclear conglomerate disputed Western Digital' s argument and said it would pursue all available remedies if it saw continued interference in the sale process.

Western Digital's "campaign constitutes intentional interference with Toshiba's prospective economic advantage and current contracts. It is improper, and it must stop," the letter, which was seen by Reuters on Tuesday, said.

In a separate letter, also dated May 3, the general manager of Toshiba's legal affairs accused Western Digital of failing to sign some joint venture agreements.

If Western Digital refuses to sign by May 15, the chip unit would protect its intellectual property rights by suspending Western Digital employees' access to all of the unit's facilities, networks and databases, the letter said.

A Western Digital spokeswoman in Japan declined to make immediate comment.

For some analysts, Western Digital has the upper hand. "From a commonsense standpoint, it's hard to buy Toshiba's argument that it doesn't need approval from its JV partner because it's almost a 50-50 joint venture," said Masahiko Ishino, an analyst at Tokai Tokyo Research Center.

Toshiba believes that a consortium of US private equity firm KKR & Co and Japanese government-backed investors would be the most feasible solution, a source familiar with the matter said this week.

Such a sale could eventually allow the chip unit - which Toshiba values at at least 2 trillion yen (S$24.7 billion)- to aim for an IPO and keep the technology in Japan, the source said.

KKR and state-backed Japan Innovation Network Corp are expected to submit a joint offer in the second round of bidding.