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2 Founders to Buy Back Kingston Stake From Softbank

Technology: Pair will repurchase 80% of the memory chip maker for a third of the price they sold it for three years ago.

July 15, 1999|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER and JONATHAN GAW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The founders of Kingston Technology Corp., who became multimillionaires when they sold a large chunk of their Fountain Valley memory chip maker, and then shared the windfall with workers, said Wednesday they are using cash proceeds from the 1996 sale to buy back their company--for a third of the original price.

John Tu and David Sun said they will repurchase the 80% of Kingston from Japanese conglomerate Softbank Corp. for $450 million. The pair sold the stake in Kingston to Softbank three years ago for $1.5 billion in cash and stock. They still own 4 million Softbank shares, which are worth more than $1 billion.

Tu said the deal announced Wednesday reflects both an industrywide slump in the demand and price of the memory products that Kingston makes, and Softbank's interest in focusing on Internet companies.

Although privately held Kingston doesn't disclose sales and profit figures, industry analysts said the company is still profitable even though it has been hurt by the slump.

"David [Sun] and I should be able to pull the cash together," Tu said. "[Softbank] could have gone out and found another buyer, but they didn't. They came to us. . . . And it's our responsibility to our employees to make sure someone else doesn't come in here to take control."

Softbank officials couldn't be reached for comment. The Japanese company's maneuvering in buying the Kingston stake three years ago--and selling it now--appears ill-timed, said George Iwanyc, an analyst with Dataquest.

"They purchased Kingston near the top of the last peak and at that point memory really did look very promising," Iwanyc said. "Since then, the industry has suffered a collapse, probably steeper than they've expected."

Now, the traditionally cyclical industry is poised for a rebound, and Softbank is selling.

Kingston, an industry leader with annual sales of $1.1 billion and a worldwide staff of 1,200, must invest in manufacturing infrastructure and distribution in order to grow, Tu said.

Such investments, as well as the memory market overall, fall outside of Softbank's core business focus and strategy.

"This is three years later, and both [companies] have changed," said Tu, 58, Kingston's chief executive. "We had some concerns about not fitting into Softbank's Internet umbrella, and our focus on manufacturing is not their cup of tea."

It is unusual for one company to sell another company back to its original owner, but the turnaround in Kingston's case is particularly rare, said Patrick Arrington, an attorney specializing in mergers and acquisitions at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, a law firm that specializes in technology companies.

"This is unusually fast for a buyer to give up on a unit when it had paid such a handsome price for it, but this is a space that has moved very quickly, and the memory market is notoriously volatile," Arrington said.

Because the information technology industry has moved so quickly, Softbank has been forced to shift strategies with equal speed, prompting the move, Arrington said.

The problem could be boiled down to four words, said Sherry Garber, an analyst with Semico Research Corp. in Phoenix: "There was no synergy."

From the beginning, Garber said it was unclear how Kingston would fit into Softbank's overall portfolio, which now ranges from investments in Internet companies such as Yahoo Inc. and Onsale Inc., to ownership of Ziff-Davis Inc. and Comdex, the annual computer trade show.

Softbank's buying spree started in the mid-90s, when the booming Japanese company announced its dreams of staking a claim to the infrastructure of the personal-computer industry. Softbank paid for its many acquisitions by issuing new stock, selling bonds backed by its rising share price, and targeting profitable U.S. companies.

But in the last couple years, Softbank has narrowed its range, analysts said. Masayoshi Son, Softbank's founder and president, has invested $1.7 billion in more than 100 Internet companies. In addition, Softbank and its venture capital arm have sunk $906 million into eight Internet firms that have gone public, an investment that industry experts say is worth almost $14 billion.

Softbank officials recently announced plans to become a pure holding company in Japan to better focus on "maximizing shareholder value."

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