By Paul Sandle and Makiko Yamazaki
LONDON/TOKYO (Reuters) – As the world reeled from the shock Brexit vote, the founder of Japan’s SoftBank was sitting in a Turkish restaurant by the sea trying to persuade the bosses of ARM to let him buy Britain’s most successful technology company.
With Masayoshi Son keen to seal a deal, ARM Holdings’ Chairman Stuart Chambers interrupted his sailing holiday to meet the founder of SoftBank in the Mediterranean port of Marmaris, along with ARM Chief Executive Simon Segars.
“I proposed to him for the first time in the restaurant,” Son told reporters after announcing the $32 billion takeover.
With an offer on the table, ARM’s board considered the bid in the low-key, analytical style that characterises a company that supplies technology to nearly every smartphone from Apple’s iPhone to Samsung’s Galaxy, and a host of other devices.
The disciplined approach has long impressed investors.
ARM’s shares were trading at 1 pound 10 years ago and are worth 17 pounds under SoftBank’s offer. A record 14.8 billion chips powered by ARM technology were shipped in 2015, accounting for 32 percent of the global market. Revenue grew 15 percent to $1.5 billion and pretax profit grew 24 percent to 512 million pounds.
Chief Technology Officer Mike Muller, one of the dozen founders of the company, said ARM valued technical brilliance above all.
“It’s always been a heavily engineering-focused company, so it’s fairly open, transparent and at times a little brutal because I guess we are a bunch of slightly autistic engineers who just want to do the right thing,” he told Reuters.
“It’s always been ‘Let’s agree what is the right thing to do driven by a certain amount of data’, rather than it being about politics.”
Suiting its low profile, ARM is located in a business park in Cambridge, the university city an hour from London.
Its offices have none of the funky fittings found at Facebook or Google, and its executives favour business suits over hoodies.
ARM traces its history back to the mid-1980s, when a group of software engineers decided to design their own microprocessor for the Acorn BBC Micro, a device that introduced a generation of British school children to computing.
Muller said the rise of rival computers based on Intel chips dealt Acorn a fatal blow, but despite the failure Apple had seen something it liked in the technology, which it wanted to use in its Newton handheld device.
With Apple’s backing, ARM was spun out of Acorn in 1990.
The Newton failed, but ARM persevered with its designs and was chosen by another company set to become a global leader – Nokia – for a new mobile phone in the mid-1990s.
“Because Nokia was then becoming the number one mobile phone company, other people knew they’d selected ARM to use in mobile phones, and that drove a lot of adoption from other players,” Muller said.
Nokia chose ARM’S processor designs because they required less power than those from rivals, making them ideal for a mobile device powered by a battery.
An early decision to let its customers innovate using ARM’s core technology was key to its success, Muller said, giving partners such as Apple, Samsung or Qualcomm the freedom to develop their own chips while using ARM’s common architecture that had become the industry standard.
The company and analysts had said that partnership model had made ARM less vulnerable to a takeover because an acquisition by the likes of Apple or Intel could put off its other partners.
SoftBank, a telecommunications and internet company with no presence in semiconductors, largely sidesteps that problem.
ARM chief executive Segars, who trained as an engineer, said he didn’t ask the company’s customers before agreeing the deal, relying instead on the analysis of the board.
“We weren’t out consulting with our customers, we believe this is going to be a great thing for ARM, our partners, our employees, our shareholders and that’s the judgment we’ve taken,” he told Reuters.
British politicians were also kept largely in the dark, although new prime minister Theresa May and her finance minister Philip Hammond were briefed on the deal over the weekend.
After the early meeting in Turkey, the two sides retreated to the offices of financial advisers Lazard and Goldman Sachs in London, as well as the Berkeley Hotel. Due diligence was done in “literally 24 hours”, a source said.
Son, seen as a unconventional visionary in the closed world of corporate Japan, said that unlike many of his fellow international investors, he was not put off by the turmoil that ensued from Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
“Talking is easy,” said the man ranked by Forbes as Japan’s second richest. “People say the UK is still a great country. That’s easy to say.
“I’m proving that with cash … I say this is the time to invest.”
(Additional reporting by Freya Berry; editing by Kate Holton and Giles Elgood)