Posts in category Business


ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

The tumultuous career of Patrick Drahi

WHAT does France’s corporate establishment make of the change in fortunes of Patrick Drahi, a telecoms billionaire who achieved brief greatness before crashing to earth? In August he was reported to be planning a $185bn bid for Charter Communications, America’s second-largest cable operator, which is part-owned by John Malone, a famous cable investor. This month the market value of his indebted firm, Altice, collapsed by half, removing much of his personal wealth.

Mr Drahi’s empire is centred on his control, since 2014, of SFR, France’s second-largest telecoms operator and a big cable firm. It was not his only acquisition; in recent years the Franco-Israeli dealmaker went on a shopping spree, buying dozens of firms and building a transatlantic telecom-and-media empire. He typically sacked 30% of the acquired firms’ employees and squeezed salaries and other costs. Customer service often tended to worsen. In doing so Altice amassed a debt burden of over €50bn ($59bn), far bigger than the value of the firm itself. That made it vulnerable: investors dumped its shares after poor third-quarter figures at SFR.

Mr Drahi is not entirely untypical in France, even if the extent of his activity is. Other swashbuckling dealmakers exist: Vincent Bolloré, a media investor with wide interests, for example, or Xavier Niel, owner of Iliad, another mobile-phone…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Japan is embracing nursing-care robots

AT SHINTOMI nursing home in Tokyo, men and women sit in a circle following exercise instructions before singing along to a famous children’s song, “Yuyake Koyake” (“The Glowing Sunset”). They shout out and clap enthusiastically even though the activities are being led, not by a human fitness guru, but by Pepper, a big-eyed humanoid robot made by SoftBank, a telecoms and internet giant.

Japan leads the world in advanced robotics. Many of its firms see great potential in “carerobos” that look after the elderly. Over a quarter of the population is over 65, the highest proportion of any country in the OECD. Care workers are in desperately short supply, and many Japanese have a cultural affinity with robots.

For now the market is small. Although the government expects it will more than triple between 2015 and 2020, to ¥54.3bn ($480m), that is a long way below the revenues from industrial and service robots. One big reason for that is expense; few individuals can afford their own robots. Private firms partly rely…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

China’s bicycle-sharing giants are still trying to make money

Shades of cycling joy

STEVE JOBS liked to describe computers as “bicycles for the mind”—tools that let humans do things faster and more efficiently than their bodies would allow. The internet-connected bikes flooding the streets of urban China could be called “computers for the road”. Networked, trackable and data-generating, they are ones and zeros in aluminium form.

The cycles belong to Ofo and Mobike, two startups that, taken together, have raised $2.2bn of capital and are valued at more than $4bn. Each has between 7m and 10m bikes in China, averages 30m-35m rides a day and, having entered more than 100 Chinese cities, is expanding abroad. At the start of 2016 neither firm had a single bike on a public road. Ofo’s canary-yellow cycles and Mobike’s silver-and-orange ones can now be found in cities from Adelaide to London and Singapore to Seattle.

Most city bike-sharing systems, such as the Vélib scheme in Paris, depend on fixed…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Google can no longer count on political goodwill at home

“WE USED to be so dismissed,” says Jeremy Stoppelman, the boss of Yelp, an online-review site which has waged a six-year-long battle against Google over how the online giant ranks its search results. Now American regulators are taking concerns about Google more seriously. On November 13th, Josh Hawley, Missouri’s attorney-general, launched an investigation into the search giant to determine whether it had violated the state’s antitrust and consumer-protection laws. Other entrepreneurs, too, congratulate Mr Stoppelman for speaking out about Google; they would not have done so before.

Until then it had been chiefly in Europe where Google had trouble. In June the European Commission announced a record-breaking €2.4bn ($2.7bn) fine against it for anticompetitive behaviour, concluding it had suppressed online-shopping results from rivals in its search results. Other investigations into Google’s behaviour in European countries are ongoing. America has taken a more benign view of its…Continue reading

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Australia is the new frontier for battery minerals

Recession proofer

FORGET the “resource curse”. Australia is blessed with the stuff. For more than a quarter of a century it has not had a recession, thanks largely to Chinese demand for its raw materials. It is only a few years since the end of one such China-led boom, in base metals such as iron ore. A new speculative flurry has started in minerals such as lithium, cobalt and nickel to feed another China-related craze—making batteries for electric vehicles (EVs).

Ken Brinsden, an Australian mining engineer, says he pinches himself over these remarkable turns of fortune. Until 2015 he was a boss at Atlas Iron, which shipped low-grade iron ore to China. In 2011, at the height of the China-led supercycle, it had a valuation of A$3.5bn ($3.8bn). This has now shrunk to A$167m. But he now heads Pilbara Minerals, whose Pilgangoora lithium mine in the outback of Western Australia lies so close to two of Atlas’s former iron-ore mines that he can see them from…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

How tech giants are ruled by control freaks

THIS month Schumpeter visited the Barnes Foundation, a gallery in Philadelphia full of paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh. Albert Barnes, born in 1872, is notable for two things. He made a fortune from an antiseptic that cured gonorrhoea. And he stipulated exactly how his art collection should be posthumously displayed. The result is hundreds of paintings jammed together nonsensically, often in poky rooms, and the creepy feeling of a tycoon controlling you from the grave.

Barnes’s string-pulling comes to mind when considering today’s prominent tycoons, who often hail from technology, e-commerce and media. At the moment they seem omnipotent. But many founders are gradually cashing in shares in their companies. The consequences will vary by firm, with some tycoons gradually ceding control, and others clinging on to it.

A flurry of selling activity has been in evidence of late. On September 13th Jack Ma and Joe Tsai, co-founders of Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

The last media mogul stuns his industry with talk of selling

THE only media mogul still bestriding his industry in old-fashioned style is used to being a predator rather than prey, a builder of empires, not a dismantler of them. So Rupert Murdoch’s reported willingness to sell off much of 21st Century Fox, whether to a rival such as Disney or to a distribution firm like Comcast or Verizon, has come as a shock to many. It should not.

If Fox does follow through with selling the assets—its film and TV studio, its stake in Sky, a European satellite broadcaster, and many of its cable networks—it may well be remembered as one of his cleverest moves. Mr Murdoch would have correctly judged a shifting media and regulatory landscape and sold high (perhaps for $50bn or more; see chart). He would retain lucrative assets in news and sports broadcasting, notably Fox News Channel, which could serve as the base for a new fief of a different sort. Mr Murdoch would also retain plenty of political sway through his newspaper businesses, housed at separately…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

The rules on allocating take-off and landing slots favour incumbents

LAST year nearly 3.7bn passengers took to the sky on commercial jets. Few would have given much thought to exactly why their flight was scheduled at the time it was. Even fewer know about the tussles between regulators and airlines over how landing and take-off slots are allocated.

For the past 70 years the business of thrashing out timetables at international airports has been the job of the Slot Conference, a semi-annual meeting of airlines and airport co-ordinators run by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an airline trade group. The 141st meeting, held last week in Madrid to set next summer’s schedule, attracted over 1,300 representatives from 250 airlines and nearly 300 airports around the world. Sitting around tables (with one for each country’s airports) in a massive hall, airlines negotiate and reschedule their slots to maximise their network’s efficiency. It is like “speed dating for airlines”, says Lara Maughan, the conference…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

A new class of startup is upending America’s consumer-goods industry

Tommy John’s got the consumer covered

IN MANY ways, Tommy John, a startup based in Manhattan, resembles a tech company straight out of Silicon Valley. On its website the venture-backed firm touts its innovative materials and patented designs. When recruiting talent, it describes itself as “disruptive” and “revolutionary”. But Tommy John does not deal in computer hardware, software or any other kind of technology. It makes men’s underwear.

Following the example of successful e-commerce brands such as Warby Parker, a glasses firm, and Casper, a mattress-maker, a growing number of startups are reimagining everyday household items—from pants and socks to toothbrushes and cookware. These “direct-to-consumer” (DTC) companies bypass conventional retailers and bring their products straight to customers via their online stores. They began several years ago to catch the attention of venture-capital (VC) firms, which have poured in more than $3bn since…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Flannery unveils his strategy to revive GE

“NUMBER one, cash is king…number two, communicate…number three, buy or bury the competition.” These rules were laid out by Jack Welch, a brash but brilliant former boss of General Electric (GE). The American industrial conglomerate, founded by Thomas Edison, has operations ranging from health care and aviation to lighting and energy. During Mr Welch’s tenure, from 1981 to 2001, his company’s market value rose from about $15bn to over $400bn. Today, it barely tops $150bn. Having fallen by more than two-fifths this year, GE is the worst-performing stock in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, a composite index that has risen by nearly a fifth since January 1st.

Jeffrey Immelt, Mr Welch’s amiable successor, violated all three rules. To be fair, he did steer GE through a sharp downturn in aviation following the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks and unwound its risky financial arm after the global financial crisis. But on his watch GE’s core power business deteriorated to the…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Allergan’s unusual legal tactic attracts political scrutiny

“BRAZEN” and “absurd”: Allergan certainly drew a reaction from American lawmakers when it transferred its patents for Restasis, a dry-eye drug, to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in September. Last week a congressional committee held a hearing on the deal, which, if recognised as valid, risks undermining the American patent-review system.

As entities granted sovereign status, Native American tribes enjoy legal immunity and so, Allergan hopes, can ward off challenges to the patents by rival drugmakers. The tribe, which is based in New York state, wants to reduce its reliance on revenues from its local casino. It received $14m when it acquired the patents, and will relicense them to Allergan for a yearly fee of $15m.

Tribes are targeting other industries, too. The Mohawk tribe holds patents for SRC Labs, a tech firm, and says it expects to earn a “significant amount of money” by suing other firms for infringement. It has already sued Amazon and Microsoft. Another patent-holding company, owned by three Native…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Indian firms make the best of coerced do-goodery

CHARITY begins at home—or, if you are an Indian boss, in the boardroom. Since 2014 firms there by law must spend 2% of profits on corporate social responsibility (CSR), loosely defined as doing good in the community. After some griping, businesses are trying to make the best of their obligation, while keeping politicians happy by funding their pet projects.

The idea of compulsory charity had a mixed reception. Ratan Tata, who heads the charitable trusts that own much of Tata Group, India’s biggest conglomerate, was among those likening it to another tax on business. In fact, the law is more a nudge than an edict. Only large companies—those with domestic profits consistently over 50m rupees (about $780,000), or 5bn rupees in net assets, or turnover over 10bn rupees—are affected, and they can opt to give nothing, as long as they explain why.

In practice, most comply, at least in part. A study of listed firms by CRISIL, a credit-rating agency, found that over 1,100 firms…Continue reading

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Toutiao, a Chinese news app that’s making headlines

WHEN rumours swirled in August that Baidu, a Chinese online-search giant, was buying Toutiao, the scrappy news-aggregation platform reportedly quipped in response that reports had mistaken the buyer for the seller. The firm is proud with good reason. Toutiao’s growth since its launch in 2012 has been stellar: it says it has already drawn 700m users to the personalised newsfeeds on its smartphone app. Its valuation has shot up, to $22bn in its latest funding round (see chart).

Toutiao’s parent company, Bytedance, is definitely a buyer now. This month it snapped up Musical.ly, a lip-syncing video platform that has captivated American teens, for a reported $1bn. It looks like a good match. Musical.ly, based in Shanghai, is the first Chinese firm to build an app that has been so admired in the West; Bytedance, which has developed sophisticated artificial-intelligence (AI) technology to customise Toutiao’s newsfeeds, can provide it with winning algorithms.

Those algorithms are…Continue reading

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A German hardware giant tries to become an ultra-secure tech platform

Bosch mobilises

BOSCH is everywhere. It has 440 subsidiaries and employs 400,000 people in 60 countries. Its technology opens London’s Tower Bridge and closes packets of crisps and biscuits in factories from India to Mexico. Analysts call it a car-parts maker: it is the world’s largest, making everything from fuel-injection pumps to windscreen wipers. Consumers know it for white goods and power tools synonymous with “Made in Germany” solidity.

The company itself prefers to be called a “supplier of technology and services”, or “the IoT [internet-of-things] company”. On a hill overlooking Stuttgart, robotic lawnmowers whizz around its headquarters and a window displays dishwashers and blenders. Inside are signs of a company in transition: posters call on staff to rip off ties, celebrate “error-culture” and “just do it” opposite a quote from Robert Bosch, the founder: “Whatever is made in my name must be both first-class and faultless.”

The 130-year-old giant’s…Continue reading

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Japan’s top two lavatory-makers are at last making inroads overseas

WHEN staff at the Louvre in Paris head to the bathroom, the toilet lid opens as they approach, a warm seat heats their derrières, and, once done, their nether regions are washed and dried precisely. Selling the equipment is a coup for Toto, Japan’s biggest producer of “shower toilets”.

Toto and its rival Lixil carve up the Japanese market for fancy, multi-function loos between them. At home they have market shares of 60% and 30% respectively, according to Nomura Securities, a brokerage. Yet they have struggled to win foreign bottoms over to luxuries enjoyed in Japan for many decades.

Today 26% of Toto’s and 30% of Lixil’s revenues come from abroad (much of it from products other than shower toilets). The Japanese market is profitable, but their loos are already ubiquitous there (including in public facilities, from Tokyo’s metro system to remote hiking trails); the majority of domestic sales come from the renovation of private homes and hotels. And whereas Japan’s population is…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Trouble for the AT&T-Time Warner deal

In the eye of a storm

THE titans of media in America have decided this is an opportune moment to join together in mega-mergers, the better to take on the giants of Silicon Valley. The problem for them is that the Department of Justice (DoJ), and President Donald Trump himself, are less keen.

On November 8th reports surfaced that the DoJ is preparing to block a proposed $109bn acquisition by AT&T of Time Warner, owner of CNN, HBO and the Warner Brothers film studio—a deal that was announced a year ago and which had been expected to win approval by the end of 2017. The DoJ have reportedly told AT&T executives that to get the merger through they would have to sell off assets: either Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting division, including CNN, which Mr Trump has repeatedly attacked as “fake news”, or DirecTV, the wireless giant’s satellite-TV business. Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chief executive, said on November 8th he would not sell CNN to…Continue reading

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