HYBE v. Kakao: SM Entertainment Shareholders Weigh K-Pop Powerhouse’s Future
The companies are wrestling for control of SM with competing board slates at the March 31 annual meeting in Seoul.
SM Entertainment shareholders have until the end of the month to weigh two competing visions for the South Korean music company’s future before its annual general meeting on March 31 — one from SM and Korean tech company Kakao and another from K-pop rival HYBE.
Despite SM Entertainment’s announcement Monday that it had canceled plans due to a court injunction to issue new shares and give Kakao a 9.05% stake in the company, making it the leading shareholder, SM and Kakao are pushing forward with their strategy to maintain control. On Tuesday (March 7), Kakao launched a tender offer to buy a 35% stake from SM’s minority shareholders by March 26 and, if successful, could soon own nearly 40% of SM and hold significant voting power.
SM — home to such K-pop acts as NCT 127 and Aespa — has nominated a slate of independent directors and laid out a plan for adding 260 billion won ($200 million) of revenue by 2025 by setting up operations in the U.S., Japan and Southeast Asia, and making acquisitions — including a publishing company — in the coming years, according to a company presentation to shareholders. If the roadmap is successful, SM believes it can double its annual sales from an estimated 770 billion won ($690 billion) in 2023 to 1.5 trillion won ($1.14 billion) in 2025.
Much of SM’s road map stems from its battle with founder Lee Soo-man. In late 2022, an activist investor, Align Partners Capital, convinced SM’s board to appoint a new auditor and terminate a contract with Lee’s production company, Like Planning. Now, SM is attempting to remake itself under revamped corporate governance and a more decentralized organization than Lee’s hierarchical control of artist development.
The current inside directors — including Lee’s nephew, Lee Sung-soo — will resign their positions “in order to take responsibility for the problems of the [Lee Soo-man] system,” the company stated. In their place, SM is recommending its own slate of three executives: CFO Jang Chul-Hyuk; Kim Ji-Won, head of marketing center; and Choi Jung-Min, head of global business center.
To ensure an independent board of directors, SM has proposed the chairperson be one of its outside directors, not one of its own executives. Among the company’s picks for outside directors are Kim Kyu-Shik, president of the Korean Governance Forum; Moon Jungbien, a professor at Korea University that specializes in environmental, social and corporate governance matters; and Sung M. Cho, CEO of music analytics company Chartmetric. For part-time directors, SM recommends Lee Changhwan, the CEO of Align Partners, and Jang Yoon-Joong, Kakao’s global strategy officer.
HYBE, home to the wildly popular boy band BTS, has different ambitions for SM’s future. HYBE acquired a 14.8% stake in SM from Lee, the SM founder, on Feb. 22, and an additional 1% through a tender offer, according to a March 6 regulatory filing. It has blasted “the bias and irrationality” of the SM management that approved the Kakao partnership.
“HYBE has been considering the acquisition of SM for a long time and gave much thought into how the two companies could work together,” Jung Jinsoo, HYBE’s chief legal officer, wrote in a letter to SM shareholders on Thursday.
In the letter, Jung argues HYBE solved two problems when it acquired Lee’s equity. First, HYBE acquired Lee’s shares in two SM subsidiaries: SM Brand Marketing and Dream Maker Entertainment Limited. That solves what Jung called “leakage in SM’s profits” to Lee. Second, HYBE alleges SM still owes Lee fees for three years even though it terminated the Like Planning contract as of Dec. 31.
Jung says HYBE structured the stock purchase agreement so payments to Lee stop “upon the execution of the agreement.” HYBE also added a clause to terminate any transactions from SM to Lee that HYBE did not know about.
While SM sees Kakao as the partner for its transformation into a larger, more global entity, HYBE calls it an “unfair partnership” that would give Kakao permanent and exclusive rights to distribute SM’s music, protect SM’s equity at the expense of other shareholders and create conflict of interests that favor Kakao’s interests. “We believe that these details demonstrate the bias and irrationality of the current SM management who approved such arrangements,” Jung writes.
Beyond SM’s relationship with Kakao, HYBE is concerned with SM’s roadmap to increase the number of artists on its roster by expanding production in Korea and building overseas outposts. Jung is questioning SM leadership’s understanding of the time and resources required to develop and break successful artists.
“It goes without saying but you cannot generate profit in K-pop just by having a longer artist roster,” Jung writes. “What’s important is to nurture artists who are loved by fans and provide a creative environment.”
HYBE has submitted a competing slate of inside director recommendations featuring a handful of HYBE executives: Jung; Lee Jaesang, president of HYBE America; and Lee Jin Hwa, HYBE’s chief of management and planning.
For outside directors, HYBE has recommended Kang Namkyu, managing partner at GAON Law Group; Hong Sounman, professor of public administration at Yonsei University; and Lim Dae Woong, a representative of the United Nations Environment Program Finance Initiative. HYBE’s recommendation for part-time director is Park Byungmoo, managing partner at buyout firm VIG Partners; and Choi Kyu Dam, a former NCSOFT finance executive, for part-time auditor.
SM portrays the battle with HYBE as a fight for its independence from a large company. A HYBE takeover would put its interests over SM’s artists, SM says, and could force SM to downsize or divest assets to meet regulatory approval. What’s more, HYBE might not receive a warm welcome: 85% of SM employees who voted on the workplace app Blind oppose HYBE’s “hostile takeover” and want to “protect the culture diversity of K-pop and the unique identity of SM,” according to SM’s investor presentation.
Ultimately, the two sides have competing visions for a board of directors that will best serve SM shareholders and lead the company. To SM, HYBE’s recommended directors are either tied to Lee, employed by HYBE or hurt shareholder value in their previous corporate tenures. To HYBE, SM’s proposals could result in a board controlled by Align Partners that lacks the experience to expand SM and reach the company’s lofty targets.
“[I]t is questionable whether the current management has a sufficient understanding on these circumstances,” writes HYBE’s Jung.