SINGAPORE: In a move that its founder described as “the beginning of a new era”, Singapore-based Grab confirmed on Monday (Mar 26) that it will be taking over the Southeast Asia operations of its arch-rival Uber at an undisclosed sum.
The announcement puts an end to months of speculation about a merger, as well as years of intense turf wars which have seen both operators dishing out generous promotions to entice passengers.
With the acquisition, Grab will take over Uber's operations and assets in eight Southeast Asian countries. It will be integrating Uber’s ride-sharing and food delivery business in the region into its platform.
In exchange, Uber will take a 27.5 per cent stake in Grab and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi will join Grab's board.
Analysts said the announcement is hardly a surprise given the rumours that has been fuelled over the past few months since SoftBank, an early investor in Grab, made a multi-billion investment in Uber.
“That basically provided a form of possibility about the end of competition,” said Singapore Management University (SMU) transport researcher Prof Terence Fan.
While Grab President Ming Maa told Reuters that the acquisition was “a very independent decision by both companies”, analysts like Dr Lee Der Horng from the National University of Singapore (NUS) said that common investor Softbank likely gave “a very heavy push” to get the deal across the finish line.
“Because from Softbank’s point of view, it doesn’t make sense for its right hand to continue fighting with its left hand,” he told Channel NewsAsia.
Noting that Grab and Uber have long passed the start-up phase and are now considered mature technology firms, it is only “intuitive” for investors to start focusing on profitability and realise that the bruising battle for market share “doesn’t make sense”, Dr Lee added.
Now, with the merger of the ride-hailing giants becoming reality, who are the winners and losers?
UBER: This marks the San Francisco-based firm’s second retreat from an Asian market, with the first taking place in 2016 when it merged its China operations with local rival Didi Chuxing.
Analysts told Channel NewsAsia that seemed to have forewarned Uber’s fate in other parts of Asia where it has been locked in major tussles with local players, which tend to be more nimble and savvy to local demands. In Singapore, it also took on a more asset-heavy model with vehicle rental business Lion City Rentals, which may have further crimped its profit margins.
Uber could be trying to “clean up its balance sheet” as it prepares for a potential initial public offering (IPO) in 2019, said Mr Anuj Jain, co-founder of local venture building firm Startup-O.
“With the change in CEO and other troubles they’ve had, there is increasing pressure for Uber to prove itself financially. Given that they are fighting many wars at many fronts, they seem to have fallen back on a script - one that has worked for them in China - which is to pick their battles and end the big cash burn.”
However, the ceding of its Southeast Asia operations may not be a total defeat for the US giant whose name has become synonymous with ride-hailing.
After all, its stake in Grab means it will be able to maintain a “strategic presence” in this part of the world, said Assistant Professor Fan.
“They are cutting losses and having some shares in Grab means they are not completely exiting from the rapidly growing Southeast Asia market."
GRAB: A clear victory for the underdog turned market behemoth, which started operations nearly six years ago.
Apart from homeground advantage, observers said the Singapore-based operator’s venture into on-demand bus routes, bike-sharing and having its own mobile wallet payment system proved that it understands the regional market “better” than Uber.
For instance, compared to Uber’s reliance on credit cards for payment, GrabPay “fills in the gap” to target the underserved and unbanked population in Southeast Asia, explained NUS’ Dr Lee.
Moving forward, the acquisition means that Grab will no longer need to engage in market strategies characterised by heavy discounts, allowing it “room to replenish its coffers”, said Assistant Professor Fan.
Taking over Uber Eats will also be a boon to Grab’s lifestyle offerings and a heartier food delivery service will give it an advantage over regional rivals, such as Indonesia’s Go-Jek, according to Dr Lee.
But more importantly, having more consumer data from Uber will sharpen Grab’s understanding of consumer experiences and requirements. This will help the on-demand transportation firm to craft better products for its diversification plans, particularly its recent foray into financial services.
“As they said, data is the new oil so this is a big victory,” said Mr Jain. “They can plan routes that can be better served by buses or bikes, instead of cars. They can also use these alternative data points to find out the consumers who may wish to access fintech products in future.”
In the longer run, all eyes will be on how Grab integrates operations with Uber, analysts said.
TAXI OPERATORS: While most of the taxi operators will likely be heaving a sigh of relief with the elimination of a major competitor, the same cannot be said for ComfortDelGro.
“ComfortDelgro is the biggest loser from this,” said Dr Lee, citing the S$642 million alliance between the taxi giant and Uber struck just three months ago, in which ComfortDelGro would acquire a 51 per cent stake in Uber's Lion City Holdings.
The collaboration between the two also led to the launch of UberFlash in January.
Analysts have said the alliance would give Singapore’s biggest taxi operator some help in keeping up with a disrupted taxi industry, as well as an uplift in earnings for its automotive engineering services and car leasing & rental divisions.
But the merger announced on Monday will likely render this alliance “futile”, analysts said.
Dr Lee noted that Grab has previously reached out to ComfortDelGro for potential collaborations but the latter picked Uber as its partner in the end.
“Now, they are back to square one,” Dr Lee added. “Perhaps they should work with Grab if they like to remain relevant in this ride market.”
When asked how the Grab-Uber deal would affect ComfortDelGro’s alliance with Uber, the taxi giant only said that it is “reviewing all aspects of the proposed tie-up” which is currently under review by the CCS.
Shares of ComfortDelGro appeared unaffected by the announcement, closing up 2.5 per cent on Monday.
For Phillip Capital Research investment analyst Richard Leow, the move by Grab and Uber could both be beneficial and detrimental to the taxi operators.
While more rational pricing of commuter fares for private-hire cars could shift some demand back to taxis, a monopoly by Grab over the private-hire car business in Singapore would put it in a better position to compete against taxis, he said.
DRIVERS: Some private-hire car drivers have voiced concerns about how the latest deal could impact their incentives and commission rates. Labour MP Ang Hin Kee also wrote in a Facebook post that those whose contracts are with Uber-owned Lion City Rentals are particularly concerned.
“As there were no prior notice given to drivers, they are left feeling unsure about how they can continue with their business and obligations they are under. They are also not sure if potential losses can be recovered or if there might be other lost opportunities."
Cab drivers from ComfortDelGro, who have been taking Uberflash jobs, are also “unsure about their options”, Mr Ang wrote late Monday.
In response to queries, Grab said that ComfortDelGro drivers "can continue to accept bookings via GrabTaxi".
It added that it will be reaching out to Uber's drivers in the coming days to aid with the transition. Uber has also sent out messages with specific sign-up details to all their drivers in Singapore.
Meanwhile, Dr Lee from NUS reckoned the attractive incentives that both companies have doled out to attract drivers could soon be a thing of the past.
This could translate into a “reorganisation” of the market and an eventual reduction of the more than 40,000 private-hire car drivers in Singapore.
“The number of private-hire car drivers is a little too much in my opinion. With the merger and a possible adjustment to the incentives, I wouldn’t be surprised if some drivers choose to leave the market, especially the part-time drivers,” said Dr Lee.
RIDERS: Similarly for consumers, the takeover deal has also generated some concerns.
While some like Dr Lee mooted the possible result of “a larger and integrated service”, almost all experts that Channel NewsAsia spoke to highlighted concerns about less-competitive prices to come.
“In theory, if everything comes under one roof, Grab can start raising prices either overtly or discreetly,” said Assistant Professor Fan from SMU. “After all, at some point, they need to start making money.”
Ms Paige Kwok, 30, is among those concerned about potential price hikes. The advertising executive said she usually toggles between the two ride-hailing apps before deciding on a ride.
“I am worried because consumers won’t have a choice in future. If I'm only left with the more expensive option, I'll reconsider my travel methods."
The Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) said late Monday that it is writing to the companies to “clarify the details” of the deal after not receiving formal notifications from both parties.
In response to Channel NewsAsia’s queries, Grab said it has informed the CCS and will be making a merger notification filing. It has also engaged the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and will “cooperate closely” with regulators.
Grab added that the merger with Uber will pave the way for a “more efficient transportation network”.
“Passengers will get to enjoy shorter waiting times, more convenient and affordable rides through one platform. Drivers will also earn higher incomes with more ride bookings through one platform, as well as more efficient and faster matching with passengers,” its response said.