Japan’s Softbank, which has been ambitiously building up its stake in various media and tech companies, announced Tuesday it would be selling up to $8 billion of its stake in Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s online retail giant Alibaba. The move, made by SoftBank founder and chief exec Masayoshi Son, will allow Softbank to deleverage some its debt.
Son and Ma go back almost two decades, when Softbank first invested $20 million in what was then essentially a start-up e-tail operation. Since then, Alibaba has grown to become, at certain points, more valuable than Walmart. A blockbuster initial IPO in November 2014 raised $21.8 billion.
Softbank will retain a stake in Alibaba believed to be around 28%. Son and Ma also will retain seats on each other’s boards, and it is believed will continue to see each other as strategic long-term partners. Last month, Softbank and Alibaba announced a joint venture to launch cloud-computing services in Japan. That same month, Alibaba disclosed the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was inquiring into the Chinese giant’s accounting practices. Alibaba has said it is co-operating.
Softbank has a number of other investments in need of capital and attention, notably its debt-heavy attempts to turn around the fortunes of U.S. wireless company Sprint. Around a third of Softbank’s $80 million debt is tied to Sprint. In March, Softbank announced it was investing $250 million in WME-IMG, which valued the talent and sports agency at $5.5 billion. That deal was not a surprise, given that Softbank’s key media investment adviser is Raine Group, itself a boutique merchant bank launched in 2009 by former Goldman Sachs banker Joe Ravitch and closely aligned with WME.
Softbank has been increasingly active in the media space, led by vice chairman Nikesh Arora, formerly Google’s top sales exec. Under Arora, Softbank has alternately invested $250 million in Legendary Entertainment, acquired video streaming service DramaFever and wireless provider Sprint, as well as purchasing of a $627M stake in fast-growing Indian online marketplace Snapdeal. Softbank also kicked the tires of Dreamworks Animation back in 2014 and also made an unsuccessful play for Universal Music Group back in 2013.
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