[TOKYO] SoftBank Group Corp's massive investment in WeWork triggered a multibillion-dollar writedown and a rare apology from founder Masayoshi Son. But one analyst argues the deal is likely to work in the end and SoftBank will have the "last laugh".
Chris Lane of Sanford C Bernstein says WeWork can have a bright future if SoftBank overhauls the business plan and more carefully focuses on the evolution of the corporate office market. He likens WeWork's business model to Starbucks's, where branding, consistency and global scale give it an advantage over the competition.
Mr Lane argues WeWork can achieve profitability if it pulls back on extraneous areas and calms a frenetic pace of expansion to focus on filling up existing space. That will allow it to grab an estimated 8 per cent of an emergent market for pre-fitted offices for corporate clients, almost like a white-label tech gadget or home appliance.
"We think investors should think of the basic business as being similar to Starbucks," Mr Lane wrote in a 21-page research report. "While profitable, the scale of profits that can be generated from a single site is small. Starbucks as a corporation only makes sense if you plan to open thousands of outlets."
It's a contrarian take on a WeWork deal that has been widely viewed as a fiasco. After SoftBank invested in the coworking startup, its planned initial public offering fell apart as investors baulked at its enormous losses and conflicted governance. Mr Son conceded "there was a problem with my own judgement" as he announced the writedown last month. SoftBank has put about US$14 billion into a startup that's now valued at less than US$8 billion.
After discussions with management, Mr Lane explains they see an opportunity for WeWork to move beyond the niche of providing space for entrepreneurs to offering flexible real estate for a broad range of companies. He calls this "managed space as a service" and compares it to "software as a service", which is the way many companies now buy from Microsoft Corp and Salesforce.com Inc. WeWork, Mr Lane says, sees the potential to make US$500 per month on memberships as "an on-going annuity", far more than software generates.
SoftBank named Marcelo Claure, the former chief executive at Sprint Corp, executive chairman of WeWork and put him in charge of the turnaround effort. Under his leadership, Mr Lane says the company will be able to focus on profitability by stopping any incremental expansion, filling its existing space and slashing overhead by getting rid of expansion staff and non-core businesses. WeWork's ability to gather data about office-use and optimise layouts - while not entirely substantiated - could prove disruptive to the industry, he added.
He estimates that WeWork's revenue will rise from US$720 million a quarter to about US$1.5 billion if it can push occupancy to 90 per cent on its current portfolio. Once profitable, WeWork will once again try to go public, perhaps in 2023, and then raise additional capital to resume expansion, albeit more slowly than before.
With a discounted cash flow model, Mr Lane projects WeWork would have an enterprise value of US$28.8 billion in 2025. That would make SoftBank's 80 per cent stake worth about US$19.1 billion, roughly 40 per cent more than the estimated US$13.8 billion the company and its Vision Fund have invested.
"We believe WeWork's valuation is justified if you believe in the long term, 'office space' will be a managed service outsourced to professionals – and that WeWork will be the leading global player," Mr Lane wrote.
"Despite the huge embarrassment WeWork has been for SoftBank this year, we suspect SoftBank will have the last laugh when they bring the company back to market in a few years – bigger and profitable."