Biggest Japan bank kicks off new era with $700M Grab bet

Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

He’s not even the boss yet, but Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc.’s Hironori Kamezawa is already making his mark on Japan’s biggest bank.

As the leader of MUFG’s digital push, Kamezawa is spearheading the lender’s $700 million investment in Singapore tech giant Grab, people with knowledge of the matter said. The deal, which equates to about 5% of Grab’s current estimated $14 billion value, may help MUFG tap the ride-hailing startup’s millions of app users and deepen its presence in Southeast Asia.

Kamezawa, 58, was named chief executive officer last month, and he will take the post in April to steer the bank through challenges ranging from negative interest rates to the need to modernize services. Analysts have expected MUFG to accelerate its financial-technology efforts under the new leader, who has already been helming projects including the development of the bank’s digital coin.

“Kamezawa as new CEO would like to put his imprint on the strategic direction at an early stage,” said Michael Makdad, an analyst at Morningstar Inc. in Tokyo.

Read more on MUFG’s next chief executive

The University of Tokyo mathematics graduate is a rare breed in an industry where most elites have either law or economics backgrounds. He has been digital transformation officer since 2017, overseeing efforts ranging from introducing more automation at branches to driving a blockchain payments initiative with U.S. firm Akamai Technologies Inc.

Depending on the price paid for Grab, Kamezawa will need to justify the investment with synergies that boost MUFG’s Asian business, Makdad said.

The deal is set to be MUFG’s biggest investment in a tech startup. Through the alliance, it intends to market a range of financial services from insurance to loans to Grab’s users, said a person familiar with the deal who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Grab is trying to build a regional super-app that offers a range of services including finance, payments and rides. The startup doesn’t disclose its number of users, but says its app has been downloaded onto more than 166 million mobile devices in the region.

The digital hook-up would complement MUFG’s growing physical standing in Southeast Asia, through its units including Bangkok-based Bank of Ayudhya Pcl and the recently acquired PT Bank Danamon Indonesia.

Read Gopalan and Mukherjee on MUFG, Grab and what it means for Softbank

It could also give MUFG know-how in developing digital offerings at home, where the retail banking system remains heavily burdened by a reliance on cash and paperwork at branches. MUFG is even offering to pay customers to give up their passbooks and migrate to online platforms.

“This is a noteworthy deal if true, since it could push forward MUFG’s offering of financial services on apps,” said Ken Takamiya, an analyst at Nomura Holdings Inc. in Tokyo. “The question is how fast they can start offering services and how the experience gained there will be utilized in the domestic business.”

— Taiga Uranaka and Yuki Hagiwara (Bloomberg)