Uber is doubling down on a business that's working: Croxon on Uber taking over Grubhub
In nearly three years at the helm of Uber Technologies Inc., Dara Khosrowshahi has focused mostly on cutting costs. Now he’s seeking a return to what defined his career before Uber: buying things.
Uber is negotiating a potential acquisition of Grubhub Inc. as the coronavirus pandemic drives a surge in demand for food delivery, people familiar with the negotiations said. If a deal is reached, Grubhub, with a market value of US$5.3 billion, would be the biggest Khosrowshahi has ever done.
Khosrowshahi, 50, cultivated a reputation as an effective dealmaker when he ran Expedia Group Inc. for more than a decade. He completed 41 deals there with a total value of US$12.7 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. His tenure at the online travel giant was defined by a strategy he picked up as a top lieutenant to IAC/InterActiveCorp’s billionaire chairman, Barry Diller: roll up competitors, integrate them and reap the rewards of scale.
The plan for Grubhub follows the same playbook. The companies anticipate there would be major cost savings by eliminating jobs seen as duplicative, a person familiar with the negotiations said. This form of corporate efficiency—embraced by investors based on the market’s reaction to the news this week—sparked a swift rebuke from some officials in the U.S., one of whom described the proposed merger as “pandemic profiteering.” Through a spokesman, Khosrowshahi declined to be interviewed.
Khosrowshahi first developed an admiration for Diller in the 1990s while working as an analyst at the investment bank Allen & Co. Diller, a client of the firm, had made a hostile bid for Paramount Pictures. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s the guy I want to work for,’” Khosrowshahi told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2017. He joined in the dot-com boom and worked his way up through Diller’s portfolio of companies, becoming chief executive officer of Expedia in 2005.
Expedia had already purchased Hotwire and Hotels.com before Khosrowshahi took over, and he accelerated the strategy. “Them rolling up a category is not exactly new,” said Stuart MacDonald, who was Expedia’s chief marketing officer at the time and is now a travel industry consultant. “Dara turbocharged it.”
Khosrowshahi tried to balance his acquisitiveness with a thriftiness around the office. His desk at Expedia sat in an open-plan office on the 18th floor of a skyscraper in Bellevue, Washinton, overlooking Seattle. He chose not to rent the top floor because he thought it was too expensive, said Mark Okerstrom, who sat beside Khosrowshahi for seven years and worked with him on a series of high-profile deals. “He’s not one of those leaders that presides from an ivory tower,” Okerstrom said.
Khosrowshahi’s 12-year tenure at Expedia was defined by an escalating battle with Booking Holdings Inc. Each tried to outflank the other by buying upstart brands, splicing them into their tech ecosystems and squeezing out incremental profits. Revenue at Expedia grew to US$10.1 billion, from US$2.1 billion, and the company’s share price rose nearly sevenfold while Khosrowshahi was in charge.
His time there culminated with two big deals, one after the other. In 2015, Expedia paid US$1.6 billion for Orbitz, swallowing the only serious rival besides Booking to secure a hold of the U.S. market. The Justice Department investigated the antitrust implications for six months and approved the deal. Then, months later, Expedia bought HomeAway for US$3.9 billion, helping mount a defense against the latest upstart roiling the industry, Airbnb Inc.
Neither acquisition went smoothly at first. Revenue took a hit in 2016, due partly to network outages from attempts at merging Orbitz’s systems with Expedia’s and to HomeAway’s runaway spending. “There were a lot of questions at first,” said Okerstrom, who took over as Expedia CEO in 2017 before he was ousted last December after clashing with the board over growth prospects. In hindsight, both deals are seen as largely successful for helping Expedia keep the voracious growth of Booking in check. Despite HomeAway’s costs, it became a core source of growth for the company.
When Khosrowshahi wants to get serious at the negotiating table, he has a tell. His hand goes behind his neck, his elbow slides across the desk, and he hones in on the subject with a calming timbre. “He leans into the numbers, he leans into the issues, and he leans into you,” said Rob Greyber, who worked with Khosrowshahi at Expedia for about seven years managing the company’s often-fraught relationship with airlines. “In a deal, when there can be a lot of emotion going on, he can snap out of all that, which is a great asset.”
In 2017, Khosrowshahi was selected as the unlikely candidate to replace Uber’s co-founder, Travis Kalanick, as CEO. Uber, just eight years old at the time, was already a global behemoth with a valuation far exceeding that of Expedia. Khosrowshahi’s main tasks were to heal a corporate culture that many employees had described as toxic and bring operational discipline. For the latter, he got to work selling assets and cutting costs.
Uber sold operations in Russia and Southeast Asia for stakes in local ride-hailing companies in 2018. He used the same technique last year to offload Uber’s food business in India to Zomato, eliminating the most costly delivery market for the company. The cuts continued last week with the closure of food delivery in seven countries and the dismissal of 3,700 employees worldwide.
Khosrowshahi has made purchases at Uber, too. In 2018, he acquired Jump, then a tiny startup renting electric bicycles. “Negotiations were directly with him,” said Vivek Ladsariya, a general partner at SineWave Ventures, an investor in Jump. Khosrowshahi sold the Jump business last week to Lime as part of an investment in the scooter-rental startup. In the Middle East, Uber bought ride-hailing company Careem for US$3.1 billion, a deal that closed this year. Then Uber said last week it was cutting 31 per cent of Careem’s staff.
As for Grubhub, the company had been seeking a ratio of 2.15 Uber shares for each one of Grubhub’s in the negotiations, a person familiar with the talks said. The companies are now discussing a deal valuing Grubhub stock at 1.9 Uber shares, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Profit margins are slim in food delivery. Consolidation could help Uber reduce costs and turn a profit. But buying a company the size of Grubhub is a new kind of challenge for Khosrowshahi. “He’s not going to rush into anything,” said Woody Marshall, a venture capitalist who has known Khosrowshahi since they were teenagers.