Chinese internet firms offer $1.23 billion for Norway's Opera Software

OSLO (Reuters) - A group of Chinese internet firms have made a cash offer for Norwegian mobile phone browser and advertising firm Opera Software OPERA.OL, valuing it at $1.23 billion, in a move to reach more of the emerging market customers with whom Opera is popular.

The buyers include U.S.-listed Web search and security firm Qihoo 360 QIHU.N and Beijing Kunlun Tech 300418.SZ, a distributor of online and mobile games, who have agreed to pay 71 Norwegian crowns ($8.29) per share, with the total price equating to about 10 times the company's forecast core earnings.

In a statement, the buyer consortium, which also includes the Golden Brick Silk Road (Shenzhen) Equity Investment Fund and its Yonglian Investment affiliate, will result in a mobile Internet combination of Opera, Kunlun, Qihoo and Golden Brick.

Opera's acquisition is part of a complex of deals being done by the Chinese buyers seeking to join forces in their home market, which is dominated by giant rivals such as Alibaba BABA.N and Tencent 0700.HK. Opera also helps the group expand into emerging markets in Asia, Africa and elsewhere.

Shares in the Oslo-based firm, best known for its mobile phone web browser alternative to software from Google, Apple AAPL.O and Microsoft MSFT.O, jumped 41 percent at the opening of the Oslo bourse and were up 37 percent at 67 crowns at 7 a.m. ET.

Opera’s stock was suspended from trade on Friday after the shares rose 5 percent to 48.77 crowns in anticipation of an announcement on the company’s future, management having said last year it was looking to sell itself.

Chairman Sverre Munck told Reuters on Wednesday it was essential for the 20-year-old firm to find partners in order to compete against the giants of the technology world and their integrated software platforms, which eclipse rival products.

"Facebook and (Alphabet Inc's GOOGL.O) Google have their ecosystems and now we have one too, in a part of the world that is growing incredibly fast and where we will become very strong," he said in an interview in Oslo.

Munck said several bidders took part in the sales process but he declined to say whom.

Opera has transformed itself in recent years into a mobile advertising service, from which it now derives much of its revenue, having started out with a PC browser that has struggled to compete with mainstream Web browsers such as Internet Explorer, Chrome, Mozilla and Safari.

The Norwegian company predicted on Wednesday its underlying earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization would amount to $100-125 million in 2016 on revenue of $690-740 million.

Its browser division now specializes in compressing data to minimize download times and costs for subscribers, especially when watching video, making it particularly popular in emerging market economies where network bandwidth can be constrained.

“We want to be an ecosystem with a billion users,” Opera’s chief executive Lars Boilesen told Reuters, adding that the deal still needed to be approved by the Chinese authorities. Qihoo, which provides a diverse set of search, navigation and security services to Chinese mobile phone and computer users, makes more than half of its sales from online advertising sales. Both Qihoo and Kunlun have undergone a similar evolution to Opera to focus increasingly on mobile customers.

“Kunlun and Qihoo will have access to Opera’s user base to cross-sell their services too,” said Jefferies financial analyst David Reynolds in a note to clients. The acquisition of Opera comes after Qihoo agreed in December with some members of the consortium to be taken private.

Separately, Beijing Kunlun Tech last month agreed to take a 60 percent stake in popular Los Angeles-based Grindr, a gay mobile phone dating app service which is popular worldwide.

A representative for Kunlun declined to offer an immediate comment. Calls to Qihoo on Wednesday went unanswered.

(Adds share price reaction, comments by Opera’s CEO; refiled to modify syntax in paragraph 6.)

Additional reporting by Eric Auchard in Frankfurt, Ole Petter Skonnord, Terje Solsvik and Camilla Knudsen in Oslo and Megha Rajagopalan in Beijing; Writing by Gwladys Fouche; Editing by Greg Mahlich