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Uber planning expansion in Japan, Singapore amid talks of retreat

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If Uber Technologies is planning a retreat from Asia, no one told Brooks Entwistle, head of the ride-hailing company's business in the region.

[SINGAPORE] If Uber Technologies is planning a retreat from Asia, no one told Brooks Entwistle, head of the ride-hailing company's business in the region.

The San Francisco-based company is planning an expansion in Japan and is offering faster booking and cheaper rides to gain share in Singapore, Mr Entwistle said in an interview. Despite recent speculation that Uber may withdraw from the region after SoftBank Group's investment in the company, he said that's simply not the plan.

"I have been given absolute instructions to run and grow the business," said the 50-year-old, who was previously chairman for South-east Asia at Goldman Sachs Group. "That's what I'm doing, and that's what I'm going to do."

Japan will be a major focus for Uber in 2018, he said. It's one of the largest taxi markets in the world and one Uber has so far failed to crack. Mr Entwistle said Uber is in early talks with several taxi companies in the country, and he expects to strike more than one partnership there.

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The US company is also in discussions with payments firms across Asia to ink partnerships similar to its tie-up with Vietnamese mobile wallet company MoMo.

The moves may create tension with SoftBank. The Japanese company just took a 15 per cent stake in Uber and wants it to pull out of certain Asian markets, according to people familiar with the matter. In South-east Asia, for example, Uber competes against Grab, whose largest shareholder is none other than SoftBank. An Uber withdrawal would save money for both startups, and would improve the US company's profitability ahead of its planned initial public offering in 2019.

Grab, led by co-founder and CEO Anthony Tan, has already begun preliminary talks to acquire Uber operations and wants a deal, said the people, asking not to be named because the matter is private.

There's a similar situation in India. Uber competes in the country against Ola, which is the leading local player and also backed by SoftBank. Uber and Ola have also begun talks about a deal, according to one of people. A merger in India may face opposition from regulators however, given a lack of viable rivals in ride-hailing.

A spokesman for Uber declined to comment on any speculation about negotiations with Grab or Ola. Mr Entwistle said there are no talks that he knew of. 

For Uber, the trade-off is scale. If it pulls out of markets such as India and Indonesia, that will improve profitability immediately - but it would sacrifice long-term growth.

Chief executive officer Dara Khosrowshahi said recently the company would continue to be aggressive about expansion in 2018 as he sees Uber as being "everywhere for everyone".

"One of the fundamental strengths of Uber is a global scope that we have," he said in an interview with Bloomberg News editor-in-chief John Micklethwait at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "I would look at Uber very much as a global brand."

He declined to comment directly on SoftBank's influence or potential deals. The Japanese company only has two board seats at Uber and lacks the control to force any agreements.

"SoftBank is a very important shareholder, and many of our shareholders have opinions over what's the right thing to do," Mr Khosrowshahi said in Davos. "We will have discussions at the board, and we will set a long-term strategy and execute."

Mr Khosrowshahi has scheduled his first visit to Asia since taking over as CEO last summer. He will visit Japan and India this month to meet business and government leaders.

Since joining Uber, Mr Entwistle has been working to make parts of Asia into a model of the cooperative, law-abiding company that his boss wants to build. From Bangkok to Taipei, he's inked several partnerships with taxi companies, once its sworn enemies. Uber has come under investigation from the US Justice Department for possible violations of laws against overseas bribery and has been sued by a woman whose Uber driver was convicted of rape in an Indian court.

Mr Entwistle is from Colorado and a serious mountain climber. He likened his job at Uber now to climbing Everest last year. His team reached the summit in 27 days, compared to the 60 days it typically takes.

"What I've learned in the Himalayas is that you want to have diversions to an absolute minimum and keep focused on the task at hand," he said. "I'm bringing in that learning, and we're putting everything we have into this Asia-Pacific market."

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