Malaysian internet entrepreneur Anthony Tan is set to dramatically increase his control over his company Grab when the south-east Asian tech group joins Nasdaq later this year.
In a move that would be the envy of his Silicon Valley peers, the Grab chief executive and co-founder will have 60.4 per cent of the voting power in the company while owning a stake of just 2.2 per cent.
This is a feat comparable to that of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and unprecedented for a deal involving a special purpose acquisition company.
The holdings were contained in papers filed last week after the Singapore-based company unveiled a record deal to combine with a New York-listed Spac launched by Altimeter, a Silicon Valley group, valuing the business at almost $40bn.
The filing also revealed that the company, whose superapp offers everything from ride-hailing to deliveries and financial services, has reported potential violations of anti-corruption laws to the US Department of Justice.
Proponents say Tan needs the control to make quick and difficult decisions in navigating Grab’s eight markets. The deal is a crucial test of international investor appetite for a tech company with operations sprawled across the vastly diverse and emerging region of south-east Asia.
But his grip on the SoftBank-backed company’s direction marks the first time a Spac deal has entrenched a founder’s voting rights to this degree, say experts.
Such an overriding majority voting right for a chief executive is “unprecedented” for a company seeking a Spac route, said Robson Lee, a partner at law firm Gibson Dunn. “While it is not unusual for high tech companies seeking a listing to entrench management shares with additional voting rights, a 60 per cent absolute majority will be the first in the market,” Lee said.
Others put it more bluntly.
“By bypassing a traditional IPO, Grab has attracted less scrutiny over Anthony’s control,” said one investment banker with direct knowledge of the deal.
While common in the tech space, such arrangements are not always popular, as evidenced by the backlash against Adam Neumann, WeWork’s messianic co-founder, and shareholder protests faced by Zuckerberg, who holds about 60 per cent of the voting power at Facebook.
Details of Tan’s control did not surprise Grab’s rival, Indonesia-based super app Gojek. Merger talks between the two companies were abandoned late last year before Grab began considering a Spac merger, and people close to the talks said Tan had demanded control indefinitely as a “CEO for life”. Grab has denied the reports.
One long-term Grab investor said that Tan, who comes from one of Malaysia’s wealthiest families, “needs a high level of power” to negotiate a seat at the table at the region’s messily interlinked world of family-run conglomerates, politics and regulation.
“The issue is south-east Asia in itself is not a homogeneous market . . . It’s a collection of different markets with their own sets of regulatory considerations,” said Lawrence Loh, director of the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore.
In its filing, Grab outlined several risks including an investigation it launched into potential violations of anti-corruption laws related to its operations in one country. The company reported the potential violations to the DoJ but declined to comment on them when contacted by the Financial Times.
The onus is on Grab and Tan to justify the dichotomy between ownership and voting shares and prove it is in the interest of the shareholders, said Nirgunan Tiruchelvam, head of consumer sector equity research at Tellimer Group.
“If he can argue that such a disproportionate share of voting would be beneficial to shareholders and add value for further direction of the company, then it’s possible shareholders would be comfortable with it.”
But even key shareholders have had their voting power diluted via the dual-class share structure — similar to Facebook. SoftBank, Grab’s biggest shareholder, has an 18.6 per cent stake that will translate to just 7.6 per cent voting power. Uber’s 14.3 per cent stake has a 5.8 per cent voting power and Didi Chuxing’s 7.5 per cent stake, just 3.1 per cent.
“For now we are just happy with the liquidity, but longer-term we want to see genuine progress towards profitability,” said one investor.
That is still years away. Grab has lost money every year since its inception in 2012 as it has grappled with other well-financed competitors. Accumulated losses hit $10bn at the end of 2020. Last year it reported a net loss of $2.7bn against net revenues of $1.6bn and it does not expect to break even until 2023.
On top of that, Grab has not said if it will appoint any independent board directors, nor does its filing say what checks and balances are placed on Tan. Information on succession or who inherits Tan’s stock has not been released.
“Further details will be in the F-4 registration statement that will be filed with the SEC [the US Securities and Exchange Commission], and to comply with this regulatory process, we will not be able to share more until the F-4 is finalised,” Grab said in a statement.
Jeffrey Seah, a partner at Singapore-based venture capital firm Quest Ventures, said: “While he has supervoting rights, he has kept his management team intact. That is a [type of] check and balance.”
But even the supervoting shares held by Grab’s co-founder Tan Hooi Ling and president Ming Maa will be beneficially owned by Tan under a deed that will be entered at the time of the merger.
So far, Grab’s big-name investors seem happy to back Tan. Funds investing in the deal include BlackRock, T Rowe Price, Fidelity, Janus Henderson, Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala, Singapore’s Temasek, Malaysian fund Permodalan Nasional Berhad as well as a number of wealthy Indonesian family offices.
The test will come when Grab joins the Nasdaq, said Loh. The deal has been approved by both Grab and Altimeter Growth boards, and it could close by July.
“The moment of truth will be when we discover the listing price and when it’s actually traded . . . If there are concerns, all investors will probably give it a discount,” he added.