SoftBank still merger hungry despite T-Mobile flop: analysts

  • AFP, Tokyo
  • Updated: Aug 17, 2014 13:27 IST

Japanese mobile carrier SoftBank's failed bid for T-Mobile marked a rare defeat for its brash billionaire founder, but few expect it to sideline a man intent on building "the world's number-one company".

After years of scooping up companies big and small, Masayoshi Son's voracious appetite for acquisitions hit a snag amid reports earlier this month that the firm's US unit had abandoned a $32 billion offer for T-Mobile in the face of regulatory opposition.

Son never confirmed his plan to scoop up T-Mobile. But he repeatedly said that he wanted a stronger number-three carrier to take on US market leaders Verizon and AT&T, after last year's monster $21.6 billion acquisition of Sprint.

The T-Mobile acquisition was seen as key to that strategy.

The 57-year-old Son -- one of Japan's most colourful entrepreneurs, who by his telling grew up poor, scrounging food from his neighbours to feed to the family's livestock -- is rarely at a loss for words.

But he had little to say when asked about the T-Mobile flop.

"SoftBank does not discuss whether or not we intend to purchase particular firms," he told reporters in Tokyo.

"I have never made an official comment on this, and I will not have an official comment today."

However, he added: "I am always exploring various options."

Son may have pulled back because he has his eye on another company and needed to free up cash, analysts said.

"My guess is that he needed to cancel it because he cannot let two major deals run at the same time," said Satoru Kikuchi, analyst at SMBC Nikko Securities in Tokyo.

"I see this as a good thing," he added.

In the wake of the deal's collapse, Sprint replaced its chief executive Dan Hesse with Marcelo Claure, who heads SoftBank mobile service subsidiary Brightstar.


'No. 1 company' Money-losing Sprint had been dogged by criticism over poor network quality and spotty coverage, but Son insisted that those problems are gone and the firm under a new chief was going to offer big discounts to win back customers.

He also hired former Google executive Nikesh Arora, who may have persuaded his new boss to drop the T-Mobile deal to pursue grander ambitions.

The new hires "can be seen as a sign that SoftBank is taking a more proactive global strategy that isn't limited to international telecom operations, but also involves the Internet and the media," Barclays analyst Keiichi Yoneshima said in a client note.

"The Sprint deal has expanded its international businesses and those moves will likely accelerate."

Son is one to think big.

Last year, he told shareholders that he was aiming to turn Japan's third-largest telecom company into a global behemoth that outpaces the likes of ExxonMobil, JPMorgan and Apple.

"I used to discreetly say we would be among the world's top 10 firms, but that doesn't fit my goals anymore," he said.

The firm is nowhere near that level right now and was largely unknown outside Japan before the Sprint deal was announced.

At home, SoftBank was the first Japanese carrier to offer Apple's iPhone and is known for commercials featuring a talking snow-white dog that have also starred US actor Tommy Lee Jones.

Since the Sprint deal, SoftBank has snapped up Finnish game developer Supercell, creator of hugely popular "Clash of Clans", and a host of smaller firms.

Some have raised red flags over the amount of debt SoftBank was taking on to finance the deals.

But the firm owns a big stake in Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba which is soon expected to list its shares in a multi-billion-dollar offering that could be a huge cash windfall for SoftBank.

And with so much already invested in the US market, Son may still take another run at T-Mobile down the road, said a Tokyo-based analyst who asked not to be named.

"To boost revenue and customers, the T-Mobile deal would have been a great plan," he said.

"But they must have expected that it could fail this time. I can still see them continuing to pursue the deal in the longer-term."

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