Artisan Partners, one of the biggest U.S. investors in Toshiba Corp., generally supports the conglomerate’s plan to separate into three companies as a vote nears on the proposal that will decide the future of the more than 140-year-old firm.
Artisan is “in principle” aligned with the proposition, Rezo Kanovich, who manages more than $9 billion in a small- and mid-cap strategy for the Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based investment firm, said in a video interview. A split would make Toshiba’s sprawling business easier to manage and more understandable, Kanovich said.
The comments show that not all Toshiba’s foreign shareholders oppose the group’s separation proposal, which it announced in November after years of scandals and corporate governance issues. Activist investors have been circling the Japanese firm, with one major shareholder, 3D Investment Partners Pte., already publishing an open letter expressing misgivings about the plan.
“We think that it would focus the organization, and allow people to simplify perhaps the bureaucracy of this company and accelerate decision-making,” Kanovich said. Artisan owns about 1% of Toshiba, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Once an icon of corporate Japan, Toshiba has been mired in controversy dating back to at least 2015, when it had to pay a large penalty for falsifying financial statements. An ill-fated foray into the nuclear business forced it to take a $6.3 billion write-down and sell off its crown jewel memory-chip business.
As losses mounted, activists led by Effissimo Capital Management Pte. pushed for a shakeup of the company’s board, including an attempt to get Effissimo co-founder Yoichiro Imai a position as director. The firm said in November it’s undecided on whether to support the split plan.
Last year, Toshiba defeated the activists at its annual shareholders meeting, successfully electing its own board nominees. But an independent investigation later found management had worked with public officials to sway the outcome of the vote.
Kanovich said Artisan isn’t “particularly taking sides” with either activist investors or the company’s management. Toshiba is a “spectacularly attractive asset” with “one of the most interesting technology bases in the world,” he said, citing a range of businesses including quantum computing, renewable energy and power semiconductors.
“The world has completely overlooked the quality of R&D that’s been conducted within Toshiba,” Kanovich said, calling the shares “extraordinarily cheap.”
Kanovich said he’s opposed to the broadly expressed sentiment that the only way to restructure the business is by private equity. Toshiba held discussions with private equity funds about possible options before deciding on the three-way split.
“The idea that private equity gets to buy it on the cheap and triple their money and sell it to the public market again is a wrong idea,” Kanovich said. “We feel that all shareholders in Toshiba should benefit from the extraordinary potential of this business.”
Some activist investors advocating a quick sale to private equity would also have the ability to invest in Toshiba as an illiquid private company, he said.
Asked why Artisan only “in principle” supports Toshiba’s proposal, Kanovich gave two reasons. First, the chief executive officers for the businesses, and the chairman for the group, haven’t been decided, he said. Second, it’s still not clear how Japan’s regulator views the plan, given that Toshiba has some businesses, such as nuclear and memory chips, that could be considered strategically important.
Kanovich took over the Artisan Non-U.S. Small-Mid Growth strategy in 2018 and increased its assets to $9.5 billion as of Sept. 30. The firm closed the strategy to most new investors in July. Before Artisan, Kanovich was portfolio manager of the Oppenheimer International Small-Mid Cap strategy.
Toshiba is expected to hold an extraordinary general meeting of shareholders in the first quarter of next year to vote on the separation plan. It will host briefings for investors on Feb. 7 and 8 to explain its business strategies.
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