Thought leadership

Prime Minister Theresa May has welcomed SoftBank’s £24 billion tie-up with Cambridge-based ARM Holdings despite vowing to defend UK firms from foreign takeovers.

The PM’s official spokeswoman said the swoop by the Japanese firm for one of the UK’s biggest technology companies “was a clear vote of confidence in Britain” and showed the UK could make a success of leaving the European Union.

She said Mrs May had given her support to the deal after a conversation with SoftBank’s chief executive Masayoshi Son on Sunday, where she learned of the Japanese firm’s intent to double ARM’s UK workforce and keep its headquarters in Cambridge.

Her comments come just a week after she pledged to devise a “proper industrial strategy” to defend UK companies from being snapped up by foreign businesses, including firms in Britain’s pharmaceutical sector.

Speaking during her campaign to become PM, she said: “Transient shareholders … are not the only people with an interest when firms are sold or closed. Workers have a stake, local communities have a stake, and often the whole country has a stake.”

SoftBank has pledged to embark on a major recruitment drive and hold on to ARM’s existing management team following its swoop for the British tech firm, which supplies technology for Apple’s iPhone.

The deal was branded “the biggest ever Asian investment in the UK” by Mrs May and valued the technology firm at 1700p per share, a 43% premium on Friday’s closing share price of 1189p.

The combined group hopes the acquisition will allow it to capitalise on opportunities in the “internet of things” – giving everyday objects a connection to the internet.

Shares in ARM Holdings jumped 42% following the announcement. Stuart Chambers, chairman of ARM, said: “SoftBank has given assurances that it will invest considerably in the business, including doubling the UK headcount over the next five years and maintaining ARM’s unique culture and business model.”

However, experts have warned that the deal could lead to a “brain drain” if

ARM Holdings’ businesses are moved out of the UK. Analysts also expect more British firms to become foreign takeover targets, with the plunge in the value of the pound making UK firms cheaper following the Brexit vote.

Chancellor Philip Hammond said the takeover would “turn this great British company into a global phenomenon”. He added: “Just three weeks after the referendum decision, it shows that Britain has lost none of its allure to international investors. Britain is open for business – and open to foreign investment.”

As part of the deal, ARM Holdings will keep its headquarters in Cambridge, while efforts will be made to grow ARM’s workforce outside of the UK.

The firm, which employs 3,000 people in the UK, saw its results come in ahead of expectations in April as pre-tax profits lifted 14% to £137.5 million in the first quarter year-on-year, while revenues also stepped up 22% to £276.4 million over the period.

ARM’s directors will recommend the deal is accepted by ARM shareholders at its forthcoming general meeting. The deal will also need to win the backing of regulators.

Masayoshi Son, chairman and chief executive of SoftBank, said the investment marked its strong commitment to the UK and the “competitive advantage” of the science and technology industries in Cambridge.

However, Mark Skilton, a professor of practice at Warwick Business School, warned that it could lead to a loss of skills and knowledge from the UK.

He added: “The concern of brain drain and ARM business moving from the UK must be considered in this equation based on its know-how and leadership in chip design.”

Neil Wilson, markets analyst at ETX Capital, said: “The pound is down around 10% since the referendum and this makes British firms a lot more attractive.

He added: “Poundland was recently snapped up by Steinhoff and if this ARM deal is anything to go by, we can expect a torrent of deals to flow.”

In a leadership campaign speech last week, days before she became PM, Mrs May said she wanted an industrial strategy that “wouldn’t automatically stop the sale of British firms to foreign ones, but (would) be capable of stepping in” to defend sectors of importance to the national economy.

Asked whether Mrs May did not want to protect the UK tech sector from foreign takeovers, the PM’s official spokeswoman said: “We don’t see it like that. The Prime Minister was clear that some takeovers have been in the national interest. I think the point that she was making is that we should look very clearly at each case and be driven by what is in the national interest.

“If you look at the facts of this one, it is very much in the national interest.”

The co-founder of ARM Holdings, Hermann Hauser, said the deal represented a “sad day” for the UK’s technology sector.

In a tweet, Mr Hauser, who is now a partner at Amadeus Capital, said: “ARM is the proudest achievement of my life. The proposed sale to SoftBank is a sad day for me and for technology in Britain.”

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