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Electronic Arts buys stake in Ubisoft in "hostile" act

EA now owns almost 20 percent stake in competitor, says it intends to be "very good shareholders." Ubisoft sends mixed messages.


French game maker Ubisoft got an extra shot of espresso in its morning coffee today. In the early hours in New York, well before the markets in France had closed, Electronic Arts announced it had completed a transaction with European investment firm Talpa Beheer BV for a block of shares equivalent to 19.9 percent of Ubisoft Entertainment.

As a result, one of Ubisoft's chief competitors now owns the second most sizable voting block of its shares. The one larger block of voting shares is owned by the Guillemot family, Ubisoft's founders, who control 22.8 percent of the company.

"We intend to be very good shareholders, not necessarily activists," EA vice president of corporate communications Jeff Brown told GameSpot this morning. Brown also indicated that an SEC review of the transaction is required, as are subsequent filings in France.

Questions as to EA's goals are slowly coming into view, but for the time being, both parties are downplaying the news as business as usual. In an e-mail sent from Ubisoft president Yves Guillemot today to "Managers Worldwide," he said the deal "emphasizes the strategic importance of Ubisoft's position in the video game industry." Smoothing the shock further, he added: "Thanks to the strength of its studios and brands, Ubisoft is in the strongest position amidst all publishers to meet the challenge of the transition to next generation consoles. This is why we attract the active interest of our competitors."

However, Guillemot's e-mail differed sharply from statements a Ubisoft rep gave Reuters. The spokesman told the news service that "Pending further information, we consider this operation as hostile." He added, "We think this operation is aimed at securing the studios of Ubisoft that are ready to face the next generation of gaming consoles."

Sources told GameSpot today that Ubi officials learned of the stock acquisition only after reading about it online, although Brown said the two companies had addressed the possibility of such a purchase previously. "We have had discussions with them prior to today."

According to Brown, it was known that the block of shares were soon to be sold by Talpa Beheer. "Their shares were going to come on to the market. We knew Talpa was going to sell these, we knew there were a number of entities that were interested in purchasing the shares and we decided it would be best for us to have them." He further elaborated on the reasons behind the transaction, saying, "We think it's a good company and well-managed."

The Wall Street Journal is estimating the acquisition cost EA between $85 and $100 million. Friedman, Billings, Ramsey analyst Shawn Milne called the deal at $96 million.

Milne said the stock acquisition "fits EA's global growth strategy." Recognizing that "one of EA's strategic goals is to continue to grow its global revenue base and development capabilities," Milne said, "we believe acquiring a stake in Ubisoft fits well within that strategy." He went on to praise the purchase, saying "With roughly $2.5 billion in cash, we view the Ubisoft investment as a prudent use of capital." Milne and FBR maintains an Outperform rating on Electronic Arts and sees a $70 price target.

The stock closed up $.30 cents today to $59.94.

As for how EA may decide to use its newly acquired influence, Brown said, "We are preserving our options in the future."

"There's nothing here that calls for any cooperation in any of their publishing or development [activities]," Brown said. So, is EA going to enter the decision-making process for the next Prince of Persia, for example? Brown said that would be highly unlikely. "Of course, the answer is no. This is a financial transaction."

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