Dec 5, 2019

SoftBank's fixers

Illustration of a suitcase floating down with a parachute

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Each day at WeWork HQ, there are two different groups of staffers: Company employees, and a team of on-site fixers from SoftBank Group. It's the same thing at vehicle leasing company Fair, in which SoftBank Vision Fund is the largest outside investor.

The big question: Who are these people, and where did they come from?

The WeWork team was basically hand-picked by Marcelo Claure, the former Sprint boss and callous Instagrammer who became WeWork's executive chairman as part of SoftBank Group's recent bailout.

The Fair team is part of Vision Fund's group of operating executives who were originally hired to enable growth, not to execute a turnaround.

  • The operating group, led by Gerry Lopez, also has been working closely with parking network Reef Technology (f.k.a. ParkJockey), but not with a regular on-site team. SoftBank also brought McKinsey & Co. into Reef.
  • Lopez is the former CEO of both Extended Stay America and AMC Entertainment, before which he was a top executive with Starbucks.

Rajeev Misra, CEO of SoftBank Vision Fund, tells Axios that the operating group was launched around two years ago to help portfolio companies expand into new geographic markets, prepare for IPOs, and to better leverage each other's services. It now has around 40 members, all of whom are full-time.

  • Misra argues that this is different than the "operating groups" often employed by private equity firms. Not only because they're full-time, rather than retired CEOs looking for occasional assignments, but because Vision Fund is a "growth investor" that doesn't have majority control of its portfolio companies.
  • What Misra side-steps is how while SoftBank might not have technical control of its portfolio companies, it often has de facto control — having until recently pushed companies to chase top-line growth without regard to bottom-line concerns, thus holding the Damocles sword of future funding unless management accedes to its demands.
  • "We are minority shareholders, so what we can do is try to help. But we don't have controlling rights so, in some cases, we've walked away."

The bottom line: Misra said he doesn't expect the operating team to parachute into any other portfolio companies in the near future, but doesn't rule it out.

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