FRANKFURT (Reuters) - German publisher Axel Springer (SPRGn.DE) said it was actively looking at potential takeovers, even as a buyout of its minority shareholders awaits completion, amid speculation that the digital classifieds sector will consolidate in Europe.
CEO Mathias Doepfner’s comments on Wednesday came after Scout24 (G24n.DE) said it would explore a sale or spin-off of its autos platform, bowing to U.S. activist investor Elliott’s call to break up the business.
Elliott has also leaned on U.S. marketplace eBay (EBAY.O) to sell off its classifieds assets, which include Germany’s leading used-car marketplace mobile.de.
Doepfner, speaking after Springer reported a decline in second quarter revenue and earnings, said he had “no concrete thoughts” on those particular assets but was holding constant market soundings and analyzing acquisition opportunities.
Springer’s traditional media businesses include German newspapers Bild and Welt.
The chief executive added that Springer could contemplate larger deals, having brought U.S. private equity house KKR (KKR.N) on board as a long-term investor, but added: “We won’t lose our valuation discipline.”
Elliott reckons that AutoScout24 could fetch a sale price of up to 2.5 billion euros ($2.8 billion). That is a good deal larger than past deals done by Springer, which paid $340 million for U.S. financial news site Business Insider in 2015.
KKR has received acceptances for 27.8% of Springer shares, while Friede Springer — widow of the company’s founder — and Doepfner between them hold 45.4%, securing joint control over the business.
A two-week follow-on offer, under which holdouts can tender their shares, is still open. Doepfner said discussions with Axel Sven Springer, the founder’s grandson, were continuing and a decision was expected soon.
Axel Sven Springer and his sister Ariane between them own 9.8% in the publisher and are not party to the KKR deal. The buyout offer, at 63 euros a share, puts an equity value on the business of 6.8 billion euros.
Springer, headquartered in Berlin, reported a second-quarter slowdown as a weakening economy - in particular in Britain due to uncertainty over its plans to leave the European Union - hit its jobs classifieds business.
Revenue fell by 3.6% to 759 million euros while adjusted earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortizaion (EBITDA) fell by 3% to 178 million euros, Springer said. It confirmed full-year guidance that was lowered in June.
Growth in classifieds media, which includes jobs portal Stepstone, slowed to 1.3%. That’s a concern because Springer is experiencing double-digit declines in advertising revenue that can’t be offset by digital subscriptions.
New pressure is coming from Google’s launch of its own jobs product, which has triggered an antitrust complaint from two dozen job sites in Europe who say the Alphabet (GOOGL.O) unit is giving unfair prominence to its own search results.
Springer’s CFO Julian Deutz said, however, that the impact of Google for Jobs was limited because Stepstone only relies for around 10% of its traffic in Germany on so-called search engine optimization.
He estimated the impact on Stepstone’s ad revenues at 1-1.5%, which was marginal in consideration of other factors.
Reporting by Douglas Busvine; Editing by David Holmes and Keith Weir