Here’s a useful lesson: Don’t believe what CEOs say, only what they do.
This is what Uber’s top executive said three weeks ago: “We expect to lose money in Southeast Asia and expect to invest aggressively,” according to an account of Dara Khosrowshahi’s press briefing in New Delhi. “Right now the plan for Southeast Asia is to go forward, lean forward and to invest.”
“Right now” apparently were the key words. Bloomberg News reported last week that Uber is finalizing a deal to sell most of its operations in Southeast Asia to Grab, the dominant provider of on-demand rides in the region. Uber flipped from a vow to “invest aggressively” in Southeast Asia to capitulation in two weeks.
No one expects a CEO in the middle of deal talks to admit he’s about to pack up his cars and leave Southeast Asia. And there’s plenty of verbal wiggle room to believe Khosrowshahi was being technically truthful. Still, the Uber boss has repeatedly said he plans to charge ahead with a global expansion effort, and his words on Southeast Asia compared with the reality make it tough to know where to draw Uber’s line in the sand for its global footprint.
Uber has vowed to keep fighting in India and other parts of the globe, but it’s harder to take those exhortations seriously now. If the Grab negotiations come to fruition, it will be Uber’s third large-scale retreat. Uber also sold its operations in China to Didi Chuxing in 2016 in exchange for an ownership interest in Didi. And Uber closed up shop in Russia last year on similar terms. Uber’s decisions were wise in China and Russia. It was tough to compete in those countries, particularly given government rules that appeared to favor homegrown companies.
As with Uber’s prior retreats, quitting a costly slugfest against GrabTaxi Holdings Pte will help alleviate Uber’s whopping losses, which will be handy for Khosrowshahi’s plans for an IPO next year. Southeast Asia has been a particularly punishing market for Uber, and there are few obvious other spots where Uber is wise to give up. But there’s also a risk to Uber from pulling out of another huge market. Uber’s valuation, now at $54 billion, is predicated in part on the company achieving escape velocity in multiple countries and in categories beyond transportation. If Uber’s globetrotting is curtailed, its growth potential is, too.
There is an added dose of intrigue in Uber’s dealings in Southeast Asia. The company’s largest investor, the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group Corp., has made no secret of its desire for Uber to stop spending money in Asia and focus on core markets such as the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Australia. SoftBank’s interests are beyond complicated.
The company with other investors purchased about $9.25 billion worth of Uber stock in recent months, but it has also invested billions of dollars in several Uber rivals, including Grab. That makes it tough to know whether SoftBank’s strategy advice for Uber is made with Uber’s best interests in mind or to benefit SoftBank’s investments in Grab.
And just since SoftBank started negotiations for its Uber stock purchases a few months ago, the potential for conflicts have grown. Two SoftBank-backed companies, China’s Didi and India’s Ola, have announced expansions into Brazil, Japan and Australia — all countries where Uber has also wanted to make an impact. Latin American and Australia look like healthy markets for Uber now, but will they be once the SoftBank-backed rivals compete more fiercely?
The Cost of Competition
To be fair, Uber’s CEO — at least in public — has taken a pragmatic view of SoftBank’s strong feelings about where Uber should operate. “Many of our shareholders have opinions over what’s the right thing to do,” Khosrowshahi said during a Bloomberg News interview in January. “Ultimately the governance of the company is going to be at the board.”
In a different event last month, Khosrowshahi said that companies doing business with SoftBank needed to “get used to the way they do business with your competition.” He’s also said Uber is better off having SoftBank’s “capital cannon” backing the company rather than shooting it in the face. Those are fair points, but I do wonder whether Khosrowshahi’s unflappable public attitude about SoftBank reflects what he feels in his soul. This company definitely doesn’t need any more drama.
Regardless, SoftBank is both an important ally and troublemaker for Uber. If Uber pulls back from other parts of the world at SoftBank’s urging, it will curtail losses but limit potential future revenue that it will have to replace with electric bicycles, driverless cars or other businesses. It’s worth saying that it didn’t hurt Amazon or Facebook much to generate essentially no revenue from China. Likewise, Uber might have a great company even if it’s not a powerhouse in every big country. But a less globetrotting Uber may give investors regrets.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.