13 hot tech companies sold offshore: Did NZ benefit?

This month has seen two substantial technology companies sold offshore, with Auckland-based retail software firm Vend going to US company Lightspeed for $450 million, and Christchurch geologic 3D modelling outfit Seequenttarget=”_blank”>acquired by Nasdaq-listed Bentley Systems for $1.45b.

Backers were quick to claim that jobs would stay in New Zealand (Vend and Seequent employ some 400 locally between them) and that investors like Movac and Punakaiki Fund (Vend) and Pencarrow (Seequent) would recycle money back into the local tech ecosystem.

A look back at 10 past high-profile tech sales (from a field of many more) reveals that sometimes that happens … and sometimes it doesn’t.

1. LanzaTech

LanzaTech, which turns industrial waste into biofuel, became something of a poster-child for naive or misguided government funding. The Auckland startup received somewhere north of $14 million in grants from various Crown agencies before American venture capital company Khosla took majority-control in early 2014 and it decamped to the US state of Illinois – where the local government was dangling tax credits.

Today, LanzaTech has only around 15 of its 500 staff in NZ. The company’s English-born chief scientific officer – once seen on these pages celebrating NZ government grants – now has no mention of New Zealand in his company bio.

A pilot collecting waste at Glenbrook steel mill in South Auckland has been eclipsed by its first commercial plants in Europe and China. Yet LanzaTech is not totally lost to our orbit. In late 2014, the NZ Super Fund spent US$60m ($78m) to buy an undisclosed stake in the company – which at the time had a private equity value of US$280m. It later topped up that investment to a total US$87m for a 21 per cent stake.

LanaTech’s fortunes have been up-and-down with energy price cycles and airlines’ changing fortunes and, earlier this week, an NZ Super Fund spokesman declined to disclose the value of its stake. But in 2019 – on the heel of deals with the likes of British Airways and ANA – LanzaTech would raise US$72m at a US$1b valuation.

2. Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab moved its company registration, corporate headquarters and its high-tech manufacturing to the US after Lockheed Martin bought-in during 2015, and it now also has a clutch of Silicon Valley venture capital firms onboard too.

But the company remains a substantial success story for New Zealand. It’s currently on a drive to hire another 90 or so staff, split between the US and NZ, which will take its total complement to close to 700 – around two-thirds of whom work at its assembly plant, mission control and R&D facility in Auckland.

Founder and CEO Peter Beck, Mark Rocket, Stephen Tindall and ACC’s investment arm remain shareholders ahead of a pending US$4.1 billion Nasdaq listing, and Beck has already put money into local smart-cow startup Halter, and a new $10m fund for “deep tech” startups.

While one Rocket Lab backer expressed surprise to the Herald that talks with potential investor the NZ Super Fund broke down, we still have skin in the game via ACC – and as Beck has pointed out, he needed aerospace expertise from new investors, not just cash. That kind of wherewithal only existed offshore.

3. Endace

Endace because a cautionary tale for the “We’ll keep jobs in New Zealand” spiel that always follows an offshore acquisition. The network security company, which was borne out of University of Waikato research, was sold to Nasdaq-listed Emulux for US$130m in 2013.

Rich lister Selwyn Pellett (who had a 6 per cent stake) personally benefited from the sale, but also wrung his hands that Endace had benefited from some $13.6m in government grants – with the intellectual property and future profits created by that funding now heading offshore.

At the time, 119 ofEndace’s 180 staff were in NZ. But in 2015, some 100 of the company’s Kiwi staff learned they were getting the chop. In truth, as they faced shareholders quarter-to-quarter, Emulux executives were in no position to provide guarantees about NZ jobs.

But in any case, Emulux had been bought by Singapore-listed Avago in the meantime, which had zero sentimental connection to the 2013 gentlemens’ agreement. This story has a happy ending of sorts, however.

A management-buyout saw Endace return to NZ as a private company. It brokered the return of $1.9m in government funding, and today it has around 50 staff.

Crown agency Callaghan Innovation introduced specific claw-back provisions following the Endace and LanzaTech episodes (which largely involved precursor agencies). In 2018, it was overtaken by events as the Labour-led government axed Callaghan’s Growth Grant programme in favour of a universal tax break for R&D.

4. Trade Me

The Sam Morgan-founded auction site was sold to Australian publisher Fairfax for around $700m in 2006. It would then boomerang back to our shores when Fairfax floated it on the NZX in 2011 at a $1.07b valuation – only to fall into offshore control again after UK outfit Apax Partners paid $2.56b to take it private again in 2019.

Trade Me’s profits (it made $96m in 2018) are now lost to NZ, but the auction and retail site remains a substantial employer, and Morgan used some of his 2006 sale proceeds to help bankroll two then-embryonic startups: Xero and Vend (who today employ close to 3000) among many other early-stage companies.

5. Grinding Gear Games

The West Auckland maker of Path of Exile, an online fantasy game played by millions around the world – inked a deal with Tencent in 2018 that saw the Chinese conglomerate take a 90 per cent stake. The price was somewhere north of the $100m threshold for OIO approval.

At the time, co-founder Chris Wilson pledged to keep jobs local. He’s been true to his word. At the time of the deal, Grinding Gear Games had 114 staff at its cavernous Henderson office. When the Herald checked in early this week, it had swelled to 155.

The Tencent investment has coincided with a period of major growth for GGG. The company just reported a boom 2020, with after-tax profit of $51.9m (vs $48.6m in 2019 and $33.4m in 2018). After-tax profit $51.9m (vs $48.6m in 2019 and $33.4m in 2018) – and 10 per cent of that profit is staying onshore, with Wilson and his fellow co-founders still in the driving seat.

Tencent, meanwhile, has also built a 36 per cent stake in our second-largest game developer – the Commercial Bay star tenant Rocketwerkz.

6. Fisher & Paykel Appliances

F&P Appliances habitually appears in the top five of the TIN100 the NZ Trade & Enterprise-backed ranking of our hundred largest tech exporters. Last year, it was ranked at number three with revenue of $1.2b, despite being owned by China’s Haier since 2012, and having moved all of its manufacturing out of NZ some time ago – meaning relatively little of its economic activity touches our shores.

Today, China, Italy, the US and Mexico account for 100 per cent of the company’s assembly lines, and three-quarters of its 4000 or so staff. F&P Appliances’ new owner did agree to keep R&D in Auckland, after closing its last factory in the city in 2016, but only after receiving a grant worth up to $15m from Crown agency Callaghan Innovation.

In sentimental terms, it’s easy to grieve over a company that had been an NZ icon since 1934. But the reality is that Haier saved F&P Appliances from a debt crunch – and it continued to make years of heavy losses on its acquisition. And F&P Appliances’ offshoring pre-dated its change of ownership.

In 2008, the company copped flak for closing its Dunedin factory – at the cost of 430 jobs – as it offshored to China in a bid to remain competitive in the low-margin whiteware industry. Meanwhile, Fisher & Paykel Healthcare – spun-off in 2001 – remains listed on the NZX and one of our most successful, high-margin companies. NZ got the good end of the stick.

7. Callplus

Then rich-list couple Malcolm Dick and Annette Presley sold CallPlus (including ISPsSlingshot, Orcon, Flip) to Australian company M2 in 2015 for $250m, or just over 1x sales. M2 in turn swallowed by ASX-listed Vocus Group – which was recently mulling a $722m NZ listing for its NZ assets, centred around the old CallPlus.

The turn-to-our-shores IPO is now up in the air after Macquarie and Aware Super entered a binding agreement to buy Vocus Group. But regardless, Vocus NZ has prospered over the past six years.

For its 2020 financial year, Vocus Group reported that revenue for its New Zealand operation rose 6 per cent to NZ$398.8m for the year to June 30, while Ebitda rose 4 per cent to NZ$65.4m – helping to make the NZ market more competitive.

Former CallPlus CEO Mark Callander is now not just chief executive of Vocus NZ but an executive director of Vocus Group, and head of its wholesale operation on both sides of the Tasman.

For his part, Dick has used his majority share of the CallPlus sale to fund a number of startups – most notably the trans-Pacific Hawaiki Cable, which in 2018 broke the part Spark-owned Southern Cross Cable’s longtime monopoly as NZ’s only major broadband link to the outside world.

8. Orion Health

NZX-listed Orion Health briefly became our second-largest software company behind Xero, with 1200 staff and a market cap that topped $1b soon after its 2014 IPO as its share price hit $6.27.

But it had the ignominy of being the worst-performing stock on the NZX during 2015 amid healthcare funding changes in its key US market and a tougher, more expensive-than-expected shift to the cloud just as Obamacare money was running out. Many customers then froze spending during the uncertainty of the Trump error.

A promised return to profitability never happened, and a cash-crunch built up as founder and CEO Ian McCrae, perhaps mindful of maintaining his majority control, left it too late for a raise.

Orion’s value had dropped by more than a third by the time it sold its only profitable unit – its flagship Rhapsody patient record management division – to the UK-based HG Capital in a $149m 2018 deal, with McCrae taking the rump of the company private, mopping up the few remaining investors at $1.22 per share. HG Capital would go to merge Rhapsody with Texas-based Corepoint Health.

Today, McCrae is regrouping in his preferred environment – out of the continuous disclosure spotlight.

9. Aftermail

Rod Drury sold his first startup, Microsoft-specialist IT consultancy Glazier Systems, to Advantage System (now part of Australian-owned Intergen) for $7.5m in 1999.

His next, email archiving effort Aftermail, went to US company Quest in 2006 in a deal worth up to US$35m with a US$20m earnout.

Drury famously missed out on the earnout, but had the $15m he needed to found Xero – the company, now ASX-listed but still based in Wellington, that has turned him into a billionaire and created around 3200 jobs, about half in NZ.

10. Navman

Satnav maker Navman employed around 300 at its Auckland HQ around the time it was acquired by US company Brunswick for $109m in 2004 (or $152m in today’s money). Assurances were made that no jobs would go.

In the event, they would be decimated, with first Brunswick – then a succession of future owners – unable to stand against the tide of free, ad-funded mapping services that would soon appear on people’s smartphones. Hindsight revealed founder Sir Peter Maire had engineered a sale at a good time.

Sir Peter would go on to invest in startups including Rakon and, notably, forecourt self-service sales technology company Invenco. Spin-offs Navman Wireless (commercial fleet tracking) and Navman Marine would go on to modest success before also being sold offshore.

One of Maire’s senior Navman lieutenants, Steven Newman, would go on to found telematics company Eroad, now listed on the NZX with a market cap of around $330m.

11. PowerbyProxi

Auckland wireless charging startup PowerbyProxi, born out of Auckland University research, was bought by Apple in a 2017 deal that an Overseas Investment Office filing revealed was in the $100m-plus bracket. There was speculation that Apple had bought a pup after it postponed the launch of its wireless charger the following year.

But in a 2019 regulatory filing, Apple put a $270m value on the business – indicating early PowerbyProxi investors such as Kiwi venture capital fund Movac and rich-list Datacom founder John Holdsworth had made a circa 9x return on their money – and in 2020 it released its first wireless charging kit.

PowerbyProxi was in the middle of a five-year Callaghan Innovation grant worth up to a total of $25m in matching research and development funds at the time of the 2017 buyout.

After protracted negotiations, the Crown agency announced in 2019 that Apple – the world’s most profitable company – could keep its taxpayer funding. For if the co-funded R&D work was carried out in NZ, it remained within the terms of the original deal. Apple had already advertised for 14 wireless technology roles based in Auckland. Apple NZ’s 2020 financial filing, however, revealed just $2m in NZ staff costs, indicating only a modest number of its total Australasian contingent of 3896 are on this side of the Tasman.

Meantime, sale beneficiaries Movac, Holdsworth and ex-PowerbyProxi chairman Greg Cross (who at one point talked up a possible local IPO for PowerbyProxi) have all been major backers of new startups.

12. Diligent Corp

Diligent Corp – a provider of software for managing boardroom meetings and governance – had been listed on the NXZ for a decade when investors voted to accept a $941m buyout offer from a New York venture capital firm called Insight in 2016.

The NZ Shareholders Association voted against the deal, considering it a lowball offer given Diligent’s history of high profits, while 10 per cent shareholder Harbour Asset Management called it “opportunistic”. Nevertheless, enough support was garnered for the sale.

Today, Diligent remains the dominant player in its field, but with US-based management and ownership, it’s now well out of NZ’s orbit.

13. NextWindow

Auckland touchscreen technology maker NextWindow grew revenue 50 per cent to $48m in its final year of independent operation before being snaffled up by Canada’s Smart Technologies in 2010.

High-profile clients like HP and Dell were paying big bucks to license its technology for suddenly-trendy touchscreen PCs. But within months, the smart device landscape had shifted dramatically as Apple released its first iPad. Apple’s gadget was a runaway success.

NextWindow needed a big R&D push to make its technology viable for thinner screens, but at the same time, its new owner – a maker of unloved smart whiteboards – was running into the financial rough.

In 2013 – NextWindow – the recipient of some $6m in taxpayer funding – gutted its NZ office. It was a sad result. Some 120 jobs were lost. But it would probably have been no different had the company stayed in local hands. And founder Al Monro was able to pick himself up and resume an entrepreneurial career.

Today he is chairman of Christchurch turnaround success story Syft Technologies.

Source: Read Full Article