Looming IPO: Uber reveals strong growth, deficits in billions

SAN FRANCISCO — Uber is providing a look under the hood of its business in the lead-up to its hotly anticipated debut on the stock market, revealing strong growth but an ongoing struggle to overcome huge losses and repair its reputation.

Documents released Thursday offered the most detailed view of the world’s largest ride-hailing service since its inception a decade ago.

The massive filing shows Uber has been generating the robust revenue growth that entices investors, but also racked up nearly $8 billion in losses over its 10 years in existence, which mirrors the same trend challenging Lyft, Uber’s main rival in the U.S.

Uber’s revenue totaled $11.3 billion in 2018, a 42% increase from $7.9 billion in 2017, and a giant leap from $495 million in 2014.

The company posted a profit of $997 million last year, but that doesn’t mean its ride-hailing service suddenly started to make money — far from it. The positive result stemmed from a windfall that Uber generated from the sale of its operations in Russia and Southeast Asia. The company said it sustained an operating loss of $3 billion.

The San Francisco company also disclosed a legal cloud hanging over its head as government authorities and regulators investigate whether the company broke any laws.

Among other things, Uber revealed the U.S. Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into a yearlong cover-up of a massive computer break-in during 2016 that heisted personal information belonging to millions of passengers and drivers.

The probes are among the many risks that investors must weigh as they mull whether to jump into one of the biggest IPOs in years.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi acknowledged the self-inflicted wounds that damaged the ride-hailing service’s reputation while trying to make the case that the company has rehabilitated itself since he took over 18 months ago.

He struck his note of contrition and optimism in a letter included in the federal documents.

“Some of the attributes that made Uber a wildly successful startup — a fierce sense of entrepreneurialism, our willingness to take risks that others might not, and that famous Uber hustle — led to missteps along the way,” Khosrowshahi wrote, closing his letter by assuring he will run Uber with integrity.

Reaching profitability has proven to be a challenge for both Uber and Lyft. Paying drivers is a huge expense, and Uber’s fierce competition with Lyft for customers has led both companies to offer rides below cost. Drivers for both companies complain about declining earnings, and they can easily switch between platforms, making it difficult for either company to further reduce driver costs and keep fares cheap for passengers.

Uber said it plans to give bonuses to qualified drivers and is setting aside an undisclosed portion of its stock for drivers to buy.

Its unprofitable history may force Uber to eventually raise its ride-hailing prices unless it can reduce its costs by shifting to driverless cars or expand into other markets and lines of business.

But Uber’s operating losses declined from $4 billion in 2017 to $3 billion in 2018, indicating it could be heading in the right direction.

“They’re showing that they’re capable of controlling their costs, which has been a concern of ride sharing companies in general,” said SharesPost analyst Alejandro Ortiz. “That’s a sign that will be looked on favorably in the next few weeks.”

Lyft beat Uber to the stock market last month with an IPO that raised $2.3 billion, but its shares have been backsliding after an early run-up. Lyft’s stock currently is hovering around $61, down from its IPO price of $72.

The rocky start may have prompted Uber to tamp down its IPO ambitions. The company is expected to try to raise roughly $10 billion and seeks a market value of $90 billion to $100 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal. That’s below earlier estimates of $120 billion.

The investment bankers handling Uber’s IPO are expected to reveal a pricing range for Uber’s shares later this month. That will come before executives head out on a so-called road show designed to drum up interest in the IPO among institutional investors who will be given the first opportunity to buy the stock before it begins trading on the New York Stock Exchange next month.

In the end, Uber is widely expected to be the biggest technology IPO since Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group went public in 2014. And it’s likely to be the largest among U.S. tech companies since Facebook took its bow on Wall Street seven years ago at a time when most people hadn’t ever considered using an app on their smartphone to summon a ride from strangers driving their own cars.

Uber launched in 2009 as UberCab, a black car service where customers could hail professional drivers with a few taps on a smartphone. It shortened its name to Uber in 2010, distancing itself from the taxicab industry, which has criticized the company for operating under less regulation than the traditional taxi industry.

The company operates in 65 countries and has completed 10 billion trips worldwide.

Uber is also expanding in other markets such as freight while offering other ways to get around with shared scooters and bikes. Its fast-growing food delivery business, which spans 500 cities globally, doubled its revenue to $757 million in 2018 from $367 million in 2017.

But Uber faces challenges that Lyft doesn’t because of a series of damaging revelations that sullied its reputation among consumers. The setbacks have included rampant internal sexual harassment and allegations it stole self-driving car technology.

The blowback from the problems helped Lyft pick up ground in the U.S. — something Uber acknowledged in its filing — and led to the ouster of Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick as CEO in 2017. Now it will be up to Kalanick’s successor, Khosrowshahi, to persuade investors that Uber has cleaned up its act and merits a market value higher than Ford Motor and General Motors combined.

Kalanick is one of Uber’s largest shareholders, owning nearly 9% of the company’s stock.

Uber has been investing substantially in self-driving vehicles, which could be critical to reducing driver costs and achieving profitability. It launched its first self-driving test vehicle in 2016 and its self-driving car division has more than 1,000 employees, and it has built more than 250 self-driving cars so far.

But it suspended testing when one of its self-driving vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona last year. The company resumed testing self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh in December.

In its federal filing, Uber warned of the fierce competition it faces on that front from rivals such as Tesla and Google’s Waymo, who it said could introduce autonomous vehicles earlier than Uber. The company also warned that potential future regulations or increases in insurance costs could impact the autonomous vehicle business.

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, owns 5% of Uber, even as it competes with Uber on self-driving technology. Alphabet also owns roughly 5% of Lyft’s stock.

——

Bussewitz reported from New York. Marcy Gordon contributed from Washington, D.C.

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