Iconz deal, eVentures launch bring Softbank style to NZ

Softbank, the company its owner reckons to hold 8% of the public listed value of all Internet stocks, touched down in New Zealand this week - typically, in two places at once.

Softbank, the company its owner reckons to hold 8% of the public listed value of all Internet stocks, touched down here this week - typically, in two places at once.

Asia Online, an ISP in which Softbank has a major stake, announced on Monday that it had bought the Internet Company of New Zealand (Iconz).

The purchase will see Iconz become the delivery vehicle for a range of products from the investor group gathered behind Asia Online by Softbank president Masayoshi Son - including voice over IP, email-to-fax and other communications products.

The following day, Sky Television chairman Craig Heatley announced the launch of eVentures New Zealand (EVNZ), a new e-commerce company which will localise some of the Net's biggest brands - including E-Loan, WebMD and Buy.com - and also provide support and capital for local start-ups.

Heatley owns 20% of eVentures New Zealand, with 40% each held by Softbank and epartners, the new media investment vehicle established by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Son and Murdoch got together in July to to launch eVentures, and the New Zealand launch follows similar deals in the UK, Australia and India.

Heatley says that while Asia Online's purchase of Iconz had been part of discussions with Softbank, there is there is as yet no formal connection between the two Softbank initiatives in New Zealand. But it does fit Son's business style, which was described in an Unlimited magazine story in August as "a way of managing more by influence than control".

Along with the brands in which EVNZ has signalled an interest, Softbank also has stakes in E*Trade and Yahoo, and owns Ziff Davis and 80% of memory maker Kingston Technologies. In refinancing Asia Online this year, Son has gathered another influential group of investors, including VC firms JP Morgan, Nexus Capital Partners, GE Capital, Pequot Capital and network services firms Interliant and Concentric.

Asia Online president and CEO Kevin J. Randolph, who was recruited by Son to steer the turnaround, says Iconz will continue to trade under its own name under general manager Hugh McKellar, who was hired by Iconz' former owner, Ron Woodrow.

"What will differentiate Iconz over time is an ever-widening array of Internet-related communications solutions - so the customer believes they only have to make one call," says Randolph. "The relationship with the customer will be one of introducing new things that we think might help that customer be more efficient. Our goal is to make it unnecessary for that customer to have to go anywhere else."

Randolph says the new product offerings will be generated throughout Asia Online's rapidly expanding Asia-Pacific network, which this week also took in two Australian ISPs - Canberra's InterACT and Malbourne-based Internet Access Australia.

"We obviously think our investor group has made some very good investments. One of those is Net2Phone, which we were an early adopter of. We have accepted an investment from Interliant, which is the world's largest Lotus Notes hosting facility."

Randolph says Notes application service hosting "could very well be" a new direction for Iconz. He says the company is also likely to benefit from high-end billing and customer care systems developed within the group.

Meanwhile, Heatley is signalling E-Loans, an online one-stop shop for consumer and small business finance, as an early project for EVNZ.

Companies related to eVentures have already registered relevant .nz domain names, including e-loans.co.nz and i-loans.co.nz and webmd.co.nz, but tireless domain name investor John Walker will not see a payday from his registration of buy.co.nz - Heatley says a variety of other names referring to specific products have been registered and his company won't need buy.co.nz

"What we've got is a venture capital fund and while primarily we're looking to establish some of the more well-known international Softbank-associated brands in the New Zealand marketplace, we're equally interested in hearing from people who've got concepts and ideas that could be taken to other parts of the world," says Heatley.

He also is not ruling out future synergies with Sky, which will be looking for an Internet partner after its plan to buy 30% of Ihug fell apart.

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