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Foxconn exec complains about not being able to change Wisconsin plans whenever it wants

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‘It’s like being in a glass fishbowl’

Foxconn’s Louis Woo Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Foxconn’s plan to build an LCD factory in Wisconsin — subsidized by up to $4 billion in tax credits, infrastructure investment, and direct cash payments from the state — isn’t going so well. Over the past year, the company has tried to cancel the plan, restarted it at behest of President Trump, and then scaled it down and pushed it back repeatedly, all while buying empty buildings across the state.

All of that is certainly a problem for the Wisconsin taxpayers footing the bill, the homeowners who were moved off their land under eminent domain, and the people dying because the expansion of I-94 to support the project has created a construction “death trap.” But now Foxconn itself would like some sympathy, because it’s not used to anyone paying attention to its plans.

At least that’s what Foxconn’s Louis Woo appears to be saying in a video on Yahoo Taiwan hyping his boss Terry Gou, who is resigning from the company to run for president of Taiwan. Part of that video is a remarkably frank discussion of the Wisconsin project, in which Woo says “Foxconn has never operated in such a fashion before” regarding the attention the project has received. According to Woo, it’s “almost like being in a glass fishbowl, and we are the only goldfish inside that bowl.”

Foxconn is one of the largest electronics manufacturers in the world, so it’s a little surprising that a handful of articles from the business press investigating whether the company will actually build the LCD factory it’s contractually obligated to build counts as “living in a fishbowl,” especially after it kicked the project off with President Trump and Terry Gou literally holding gold-plated shovels.

“No matter where we build our factory, we don’t normally share with people when we’re going to build, how large a factory, by when I’m going to hire so many people,” says Woo, adding that all of that is a “commercial secret.”

Of course, Foxconn signed a contract with Wisconsin that specifically says it will build a Generation 10.5 LCD fabrication plant and create 13,000 jobs on a specific schedule in exchange for up to $4 billion in tax subsidies, so it would be pretty odd if all that was a commercial secret at the same time the company was courting President Trump and then-Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. It’s another hint that Foxconn signed the deal knowing it would change its plans, as it has done with several other similar projects around the world. But Woo explained further:

“We have to have that liberty to change from time to time, given the economic condition of that country changes, or because the job demand changes, because our customers have different demands on different products,” Woo says in the video, adding that “we must have that liberty. But in Wisconsin we don’t, so that’s why I think it’s very difficult for us to operate.”

The difficulty can’t be too great, as Foxconn has already changed its plans. It’s now promising to build a Generation 6 LCD plant that’s one-twentieth the size of the plant Trump supposedly broke ground on and pushed the operational date for that plant back repeatedly, all while failing to hire anywhere near the number of employees required to hit the targets in the deal.

It has also redefined its commitment to hire “Wisconsin-based” suppliers so that it can use firms headquartered in Connecticut and England. And experts in LCD manufacturing have told The Verge that the plans Foxconn has submitted for the project don’t appear to show an LCD fab, that no orders to support such a fab have been placed in the supply chain, and that proposed foundation isn’t appropriate for a fab anyway.

In response to those concerns, Foxconn directed The Verge to comments from the project’s general contractor stating that Wisconsin’s clay soil doesn’t require the type of foundation other LCD fabs need.

What’s more, both Foxconn and Wisconsin are apparently open to changing the deal even further. So the questions remain. How’s Woo going to handle them? By saying even less.

“Starting from earlier this year, I told my people we need to have a new PR strategy,” he says. “We will be extremely conservative, which is we will only report what has been done, not to tell people what will be done. So hopefully people can bear that and give us a little bit more time and be patient and just let the facts speak for itself.”

The problem, of course, is that Foxconn has already said a lot about what it will do in Wisconsin, and it doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything at all.