[Newsmaker] Out of bribery scandal, SK chief readies for Toshiba race

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Apr 18, 2017 - 15:52
  • Updated : Apr 20, 2017 - 17:45
SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won is back on track to advance the conglomerate’s global expansion, after being cleared of all prosecutorial charges in a bribery scandal that led to the impeachment of the nation’s elected leader.

The prosecution Monday afternoon did not press any charges against Chey, lacking evidence to prove the allegation he had bribed Choi Soon-sil, the longtime friend of former President Park Geun-hye, in exchange for a presidential pardon. The chairman had been banned from leaving the country for the past four months, which as a result had put SK’s attempt to go global on hold.

Now cleared of the suspicion, the leader of the nation’s third-largest conglomerate is likely to make a bold move. And a plan to acquire Toshiba seems to be his priority.

The bid is a chance for SK to become the world’s second-largest NAND flash memory maker and also a chance to gain a new growth engine for the conglomerate that depends highly on petrochemical products and the domestic telecom business. SK exports $52.4 billion a year, accounting for 11 percent of the nation’s overseas shipments. But it has been searching for future businesses, and for Chey, this is the chip business, according to market insiders.
SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won

The conglomerate’s chipmaking unit SK hynix holds a 9.6 percent share in the market, which makes it fifth in terms of market share.

If the group acquires Toshiba, the second-largest player holding 18 percent of market share, SK is likely to narrow the gap with Samsung, the largest provider with a 37 percent share, and extend the lead over its other rivals by a large margin.

The competition to buy the Japanese chipmaker became heated after Hon Hai, also known as Foxconn, proposed 31 trillion won for the bid -- a price that goes well beyond SK Group’s annual investment budget of 17 trillion won. Meanwhile, SK hynix reportedly proposed around 10 trillion won for the bid.

Despite concerns over a possible technology leak to a Taiwanese company, the offer is attractive for Toshiba, as it has been struggling from growing losses caused by its troubled US nuclear business. Not only SK and Hon Hai, but also the world’s third-largest memory chipmaker Western Digital and American private equity firm Silver Lake Partners have also joined the race.

With the Japanese government refraining from selling Toshiba to Chinese companies, SK has formed a consortium with Japanese financial investors for smooth financing. The Tokyo administration holds final approval on the bid.

The acquisition, however, appears to face challenges, as SK faces both financial uncertainty as well as political instability in Seoul.

“SK probably has to have the Seoul government on its back. But now, the country in unprecedented political turmoil puts a question mark to that,” said a market insider who declined to be named.

“The deal is a very difficult one for SK, not only due to the size of deal that keeps growing, but also because it has to seek approval from the antitrust watchdog in Seoul while keeping the consortium going.”

Despite market concerns, the SK chief has remained confident on the bid. When asked about SK’s relatively smaller proposal, Chey told reporters last weekend that things would change when the real race for the bid starts, stressing that the pricing for a preliminary round is not binding.

Reflecting how much Chey is determined to make the deal, the chairman may visit Japan this month, which would make it his first overseas trip since the travel ban was lifted, according to local reports. SK Group, however, said nothing has been confirmed.

By Cho Chung-un (