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Young Gree chief loses $2.6 billion to smartphone boom

by Naoko Fujimura

Bloomberg

In five years, Yoshikazu Tanaka became Japan’s youngest billionaire as investors piled into Gree Inc., valuing his controlling stake in the early maker of phone-based games at $4 billion. Just 18 months later, that has shriveled to about $1.4 billion.

For a youngster — at 36, he’s 12 years junior to the next on the nation’s billion dollar list — Tanaka was slow to pick up on the global smartphone craze. Half a decade after Apple Inc.’s iPhone went on sale in Japan, Gree relies on the generation of handsets that preceded smartphones for 60 percent of its revenue.

The company says it will log its first annual profit decline as consumers flock to games available through Apple’s App Store and Google Play, abandoning the social network gaming platforms of Gree and rival DeNA Co. that once dominated the local market. Since their November 2011 peak, Tokyo-based Gree’s shares have slumped by more than half, the worst performer of the 108 members in their industry grouping on the Topix index.

“They’re up against Apple, they’re up against Google,” said David Gibson, a Tokyo-based analyst at Macquarie Group Ltd. who advises that investors sell both Gree and DeNA and forecasts a 25 percent drop in the shares in the coming year. “We’re moving into an industry structure of anywhere up to potentially nine players doing mobile games now.”

Investor euphoria over the new Liberal Democratic Government government and its policies to spark growth has passed Gree by. The Nikkei 225 stock average is off to its best start to a year in more than four decades. Gree’s drop from its peak is almost the reverse of the gauge’s 55 percent rise.

Currencies haven’t helped Tanaka either: A week before Gree’s shares peaked, the yen hit a postwar high and has since slid 21 percent. That exacerbated the decline of Tanaka’s 48 percent stake in dollar terms. He hasn’t reduced his holdings as the value has fallen by about ¥180 billion since the peak.

Net income may reach as low as ¥31 billion in the year ending June 30, from ¥48 billion a year earlier, Gree said Feb. 12. That’s the first drop since the company went public in 2008. Gree closed Tuesday at ¥1,244, down from its peak of ¥2,840 in November 2011.

The developer of “Fishing Star” and “Driland” is trying to increase game downloads by introducing more titles, said spokesman Shinichi Iriyama. The company declined to make Tanaka available for an interview.

Founded in 2004, Gree started as a social networking service for mobile phones and began offering games through its networking platform three years later. The company introduced its first game application for smartphones in 2010, a year after Rovio Entertainment Oy’s “Angry Birds” debuted. It also offers games that can be played in Web browsers.

The number of smartphone subscribers in Japan surged to 37 percent of all contracts as of March 31 from 3 percent three years earlier, according to Tokyo-based MM Research Institute Ltd. The proportion may grow to 58 percent in March 2015 and to 65 percent in March 2016, the researcher said. Global smartphone sales will probably rise 28 percent this year to 836 million units, according to IHS Inc.’s iSuppli.

“Both Gree and DeNA will be badly impacted by rising penetration rates of smartphones,” said Amir Anvarzadeh, a Singapore-based manager for Asia equity sales at BGC Partners Inc. The market for smartphone games is “hugely crowded,” he said.

DeNA has fallen 0.6 percent this year. Net income may rise 44 percent to ¥44.8 billion for the year ended March 31, it said in February. The company is expanding services by offering free Internet calls and online music distribution and cooperating with developers such as Cygames Inc. and Nexon Co. in mobile games.

Japan’s mobile-game market may have expanded 37 percent to ¥387 billion in the year ended March and may grow 10 percent this fiscal year, according to a forecast by Yano Research Institute Ltd. in January.

Although the market is growing, Gree and Dena’s revenue may stagnate as they’ve lost their duopoly on Japanese mobile games, Macquarie’s Gibson said. He expects Gree’s shares to decline to ¥925 by Feb. 13, the second-most bearish of 13 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

Naoshi Nema, an analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald LP, expects the shares to drop to ¥800. That would cut the value of Tanaka’s current stake to about ¥90 billion.

“We’re most concerned by the social game companies such as DeNA and Gree,” Nema said in a March 7 report. “The Japanese market does not have enough room to expand their subscriber base in any meaningful way.”

Tanaka, who pioneered social network gaming for mobile phones in 2007, first browsed the Internet in 1996 while visiting the U.S. Three years later, he graduated from Nihon University with a bachelor’s degree in law, according to Gree’s website. Before founding Gree, he worked at Sony Corp.’s Internet unit and online retailer Rakuten Inc.

Tanaka is Japan’s youngest billionaire, according to a March ranking by Forbes magazine. The next youngest is Rakuten’s 48-year-old President Hiroshi Mikitani, with a fortune of $5.6 billion, according to the magazine’s ratings.

Gree is hiring more engineers to strengthen mobile game development, it said in February. The company introduced titles including the “Sumo” card game and Namco Bandai Holdings Inc.’s “One Piece Adventure Log” in the second half of the fiscal year ending June 30.

Development efforts have been delayed as Gree and Japanese rivals had to remove a feature from their games under pressure from regulators. The Consumer Affairs Agency said in May 2012 that a sales generating game feature known as “comp gacha” may have been illegal due to its similarity to gambling, prompting companies including Gree and DeNA to abandon it.

Gree is also trying to boost game offerings by buying smaller developers. Since 2009, the company has acquired stakes in 17 companies, including Pokelabo Inc. and Funzio Inc., according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

In February, Gree formed a mobile game partnership with Yahoo Japan Corp., Japan’s biggest Web portal. The game developer tied up with Pac-Man creator Namco Bandai, Toei Animation Co. and broadcaster TV Tokyo Holdings Corp. last month to start an animated program and sell related merchandise.

“Gree is investing aggressively for future growth,” said Keiichi Yoneshima, a Tokyo-based analyst at Barclays PLC who expects the shares to climb to ¥1,600, the fourth-highest of estimates compiled by Bloomberg. “The valuation of the company’s shares is very cheap,” he said.

Gree trades at 6.6 times most-recent earnings, about a quarter the cost of the Topix.

Although the social game market in Japan won’t return to past growth rates, Gree and DeNA, also based in Tokyo, still have opportunities as the mobile game market continues to expand, Yoneshima said.

Even so, at least one early backer of Gree is reducing its stake. KDDI Corp., the nation’s second-largest mobile-phone company, said Feb. 19 it will sell half its 6.8 percent stake in the game developer by May 12.

KDDI is selling the holding to book an investment profit, and there won’t be any change in the relationship between the companies, said the Tokyo-based wireless carrier, which invested in Gree in 2006, before the game developer went public.

By contrast, SoftBank Corp., the nation’s No. 3 wireless carrier, will spend as much as ¥25 billion to raise its stake in game developer Gungho Online Entertainment Inc. and make it a subsidiary, the mobile-phone company said March 25.

Gungho boosted operating profit almost eightfold to ¥9.3 billion last year on the rising popularity of its “Puzzle & Dragons” game, it said Feb. 14. The game, available via the App Store and Google Play as well as Amazon.com Inc.’s Kindle Store., reached 12 million downloads in Japan as of April 9, the company said April 11.

KDDI and Softbank’s moves are indicative of the future of mobile gaming, Macquarie’s Gibson said.

“The industry is changing away from existing platforms onto the new,” Gibson said. “I think Softbank and KDDI recognize that.”