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ECONOMY | 01-03-2024 07:22

Bolivian-US billionaire Marcelo Claure forges new empire after WeWork collapse

Marcelo Claure is shaping his own investment empire after the pandemic dealt the final blow to the company WeWork, as the company kept losing billions

Marcelo Claure’s resume is jam-packed with successes: founding a multinational mobile phone distributor, pulling off the complex merger of Sprint and T-Mobile and helping shepherd the fairytale run of Spanish football club Girona, to name a few. 

So it irks the 53-year-old Bolivian-US billionaire that in the public consciousness he’s probably best known for his links to WeWork Cos., the startup that imploded spectacularly after once being valued at US$47 billion. 

Claure was dispatched in 2019 by his SoftBank Group Corp. boss Masayoshi Son to stabilise the real estate company after it yanked its initial public offering amid a perilous cash crunch. He oversaw the business’s retrenchment, slashing costs and shrinking its footprint while professing full confidence it would rebound. But the pandemic dealt the final blow as the company kept losing billions even at the time of its listing via SPAC in late 2021.  

Now Claure is shaping his own investment empire — informed equally by Son’s wisdom and mistakes — that he describes with a grandiloquence evocative of his former employer. 

His family office Claure Group is hunting for deals in AI and renewables (“you cannot be a real investor if you’re not in AI and climate”), took a significant stake in Chinese fast-fashion company Shein (“one of the most iconic companies of our times”), and is mulling ways to revolutionise football in the United States on the heels of the unlikely success of his Girona FC (“probably one of the top teams in the world of football”).

Though Claure left SoftBank in 2022 and WeWork filed for bankruptcy last year, the drama around the startup hasn’t gone away. Earlier this month its founder, Adam Neumann, surfaced as a potential bidder for his gutted former firm. 

That Neumann, 44, has the funds to make an offer in the first place is thanks in part to Claure, who as WeWork chairman negotiated an exit package that granted Neumann US$291 million in cash plus US$578 million for selling back his WeWork shares and a US$430-million non-recourse loan from SoftBank.

Claure, who said Neumann has already called him for advice on his bid, is unapologetic. “That was the price to pay for us to be able to take back control of the business,” he said in an interview, noting that Son dictated the terms. “Adam didn’t have to give the keys to anybody.” 

The WeWork debacle underscores the challenge of escaping the shadow of SoftBank, one of the world’s most idiosyncratic investors, which had US$413.6 billion in assets at its March 2021 peak. Claure spent eight years working with the Japanese firm, first as chief executive officer of its portfolio company Sprint, then as SoftBank’s chief operating officer. 

In that role, he helped to execute turnaround plans at the companies cherry-picked by Son, some of which were acquired by its flagship Vision Fund at lofty prices and have since cratered in value. His stint there made him rich, though not rich enough for his liking. He left after he and Masa couldn’t agree on Claure’s request for US$1 billion in pay.


Jet-Setter

On a late January day, the six-foot-six Claure is seated in a conference room at his office in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Clad all in black, his outfit syncs with the moody, industrial-chic interiors. His stopover in New York is brief. Claure, whose primary residence is in Miami, spends much of his time on the road and often showcases the trips on X, posting pictures of private planes and posing with politicians, business executives, family and celebrities. 

In 2024 alone, he’s been in Las Vegas for the Super Bowl, Madrid for a Girona match, China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia — where his new electric boat racing team lost to Tom Brady’s — Abu Dhabi, Doha, Brazil, Argentina, Davos, France and multiple Caribbean islands.

Claure said he has US$4 billion in assets at his private firm, a figure that includes a variable level of debt that he declined to specify. With help from his chief investment officer, ex-Key Square Group executive Diego Dayenoff, Claure has bet on numerous sectors including real estate, tech and fashion. 

His most notable investment is Shein, which is preparing for a US IPO even as it faces concerns over alleged copyright infringement and sourcing cotton from China’s Xinjiang region, which has been linked to forced labour. 

Last fall he bought a majority stake in an Australian engineering company, Ausenco Ltd, alongside Todd Boehly’s Eldridge to bone up on mining. He has a long-term plan to extract lithium in Chile, Argentina and eventually Bolivia. Claure’s native country is home to the world’s largest concentration of lithium resources, which are currently controlled by the state.

“Hardly in the history of the world has there been one country who controls one-third of the most important commodity that will power the energy transition,” he said. The Bolivian government has allowed certain private foreign companies to partner with its state-owned miner on processing and extraction, but the metal has yet to be produced in commercial quantities. 

“I want to make sure my country utilises those assets properly,” Claure said. His dream is for his lithium mines to feed an electric-car gigafactory in Mexico or Brazil. 

 

LatAm Bets

Claure, who once headed SoftBank’s Latin America fund, has continued betting on the region in his solo phase. He founded Latin America-focused venture firm Bicycle Capital in June with fellow SoftBank alum Shu Nyatta and backing from Abu Dhabi state fund Mubadala. He also bought a large stake in Brazilian investment firm EB Capital in October.

He’s competing — and in some cases overlapping — with his former employer when it comes to deals. Both Bicycle and SoftBank’s LatAm fund, for example, invested in Brazilian startup Gympass. When leaving SoftBank, Claure negotiated to receive a portion of the net proceeds from the Latin America funds. The market value of its portfolio was US$6.3 billion as of December 31, up from US$6 billion at the end of September.

He said Bicycle and the SoftBank fund collaborate on deals and brushed off the notion of any conflict of interest. “I just hope they do great,” he said. 

Claure praised Son as “a genius” in terms of his foresight of world-shifting trends like AI. But it rankles him that the Vision Fund’s lacklustre returns have tainted SoftBank’s name despite its successes — many of which, he’s quick to point out, were under his watch. 

Claure almost joined the Vision Fund’s management team in 2019 but changed course after protracted clashes with CEO Rajeev Misra. He focused instead on operations, including helping run Sprint, ARM Holdings Plc, Fortress Investment Group and SoFi Technologies Inc. 

Claure’s first assignment for Son was turning around Sprint, a role that involved steering the telecom through a thicket of regulatory concerns related to its merger with T-Mobile in 2020. The experience padded his credentials in government relations, which have come in handy with his role aiding Shein’s global expansion. It also landed him a stake in T-Mobile that’s now worth more than US$1.1 billion. 

In a perk typical for SoftBank executives, the firm loaned Claure US$515 million to purchase his stake. The loan is due in July and Claure said he plans to repay it in full. He said he also owes SoftBank US$196 million for loans received to buy company stock. 

At SoftBank, Claure was known as the ops guy, the one who executed and implemented. Now, the very thing that defines him is what he’s aiming to avoid in running his family office. 

“The recurring theme is that we don’t really run anything,” Claure said of his globe- and industry-spanning investments. “This is the most successful part of my life, when I have the power to do what I want with whoever I want.”

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by Devon Pendleton & Daniel Cancel, Bloomberg

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