by AFP/ pic by AFP
TOKYO – Japan-based SoftBank Group confirmed Wednesday it will pump billions of dollars into struggling start-up WeWork in a deal that ups its stake in the office-sharing firm to around 80 percent.
The package, which involves new financing, speeding up already pledged money and a new tender offer for existing shareholders, is worth a total of $9.5 billion.
It will see co-founder Adam Neumann, who has already been forced to step down as chief executive, exit the board for an “observer” role.
SoftBank Group’s Marcelo Claure will take over as executive chairman of the board.
The agreement caps a turbulent period for the once-vaunted start-up, which was valued by some at around $47 billion at the start of the year, and represents a significant shot in the arm as the company haemorrhages money.
“SoftBank has decided to double down on the company by providing a significant capital infusion and operational support,” SoftBank Chairman Masayoshi Son said in a statement.
“The new capital SoftBank is providing will restore momentum to the company and I am committed to delivering profitability and positive free cash flow,” added Claure in the statement.
The package includes $5 billion in new financing, as well as a commitment to speed up an existing pledge of $1.5 billion.
SoftBank will also launch a tender offer of up to $3 billion for existing shareholders, at $19.19 a share, expected to start in the fourth quarter of 2019.
80 percent stake
SoftBank, which already held 29 percent of WeWork, will increase its stake to “approximately 80 percent”, but said this did not constitute taking control.
It said it would not hold a majority of voting rights at any general stockholder meeting or board of directors meeting and “does not control the company”.
“WeWork will not be a subsidiary of SoftBank. WeWork will be an associate of SoftBank,” the statement said.
The plan provides much-needed funds for the troubled company, which sources have said must raise at least $3 billion to cover its financing needs through the end of the year.
A source told AFP the deal will give Neumann $1 billion for his SoftBank shares, $500 million for reimbursements of personal debts and $185 million in consulting fees.
He will also maintain a small stake in the company, the source added.
The deal follows months of tumult for WeWork, which has gone from star status as one of the world most highly rated start-ups to a case study in overvaluation for some analysts.
‘Hyped-up loss-making unicorns’
Neumann stepped down as chief executive in September amid questions over perceived self-dealing between his personal assets and WeWork, and over unconventional personal conduct, including drug use.
And in late September, the firm cancelled a plan to go public amid questions over its long-term profitability prospects.
“Hopefully, this marks the beginning of the end of using IPOs on hyped-up loss-making unicorns as a profit-taking opportunity before the music stops,” wrote Jeffrey Halley, senior market analyst for Asia-Pacific at OANDA, in a note.
Richard Windsor, founder of Radio Free Mobile, said WeWork amounts to a “searing indictment of Softbank’s valuation and screening methodology which needs to shift towards being based on fundamentals rather than blue sky”.
WeWork, which launched in 2010, has touted its model as revolutionising commercial real estate by offering shared, flexible workspace arrangements, and has operations in 111 cities in 29 countries.
In some cities, it is one of the major landlords, but its model of offering flexible, short-term leases is viewed by some as less of a selling point and more of a liability for investors.
The saga has been a cloud hanging over SoftBank’s Son, but he has remained steadfastly committed to the firm, insisting its challenges are surmountable.
“It is not unusual for the world’s leading technology disruptors to experience growth challenges as the one WeWork just faced,” Son said in the SoftBank statement Wednesday.
“We remain committed to WeWork, its employees, its member customers and landlords.”