Nation & World

FarmVille maker Zynga is booming again

Sales growing at best pace since 2011

Frank Gibeau, CEO of Zynga, listens to a question during a Bloomberg Technology television interview in San Francisco in
Frank Gibeau, CEO of Zynga, listens to a question during a Bloomberg Technology television interview in San Francisco in May. (Bloomberg)
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Frank Gibeau had only just become Zynga’s CEO, but he had to deliver some bad news.

The once-high-flying company, which shot to fame with Facebook games such as FarmVille, was now in trouble.

At an all-hands meeting in Zynga’s cafeteria in March 2016, Gibeau put up a slide showing its return on equity compared with video-game peers. The room was very quiet.

“I showed them that we are the worst of the worst,” he recalled in an interview. “We are generating less return than everybody else in the industry.”

Fast-forward three years, and the mood is very different.

The company increased its guidance three times last year. Profit margins have rebounded, and sales are growing at their fastest pace since the game developer went public in 2011.

Zynga is “on track to be one of the fastest-growing — if not the fastest-growing — gaming company at scale,” Gibeau said.

Zynga shares have nearly tripled to $6.15 since Gibeau, now 51, took over as CEO.

That includes a 56 percent gain in 2019, eclipsing the S&P 500’s 29 percent increase.

The stock still is far below its post-IPO high set in 2012, when the exuberance around social media propelled Zynga to almost $16. But shareholders and Wall Street analysts are embracing the company again.

“Investors like a good turnaround story,” said Colin Sebastian, an analyst at Robert W. Baird and Co.

Along the way, Gibeau reinvented what Zynga is about. It now makes only a sliver of its money from Facebook-based games, which gave the company a reputation for delivering endless requests and notifications to social-media users.

Instead, Zynga focuses on stand-alone titles that consumers play on their phones. They include Words With Friends, Zynga Poker and Merge Dragons!, which lets players combine dragon eggs and treasures to produce skills and objects.

Zynga also has used acquisitions to dial up growth.

In 2018, it agreed to buy controlling stakes in Small Giant Games for about $560 million and Gram Games for $250 million.

And it has a war chest of cash and short-term investments that’s approaching $1.5 billion, which could be used for additional deals.

To raise money, Zynga has sold bonds and made more than $300 million from unloading its San Francisco headquarters in a leaseback deal last year.

The idea is to create a mini-empire of game studios and franchises, said Gibeau, a veteran of Electronic Arts.

“We see a lot of opportunities to acquire assets that would grow value for shareholders,” he said. “We want to put those dollars to use.”

Zynga is preparing to reinvent itself again by embracing new platforms and devices — no matter what they may end up being.

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“Ten years from now, I know for a fact that the platforms will be different,” he said. “There could be other platforms — like streaming platforms, cloud-based gaming.”

The video-game consoles that dominated the industry for so long may not exist in a decade, opening the door to other options, Gibeau said.

“I want our games to be playable on anything, even if it’s a toaster or refrigerator,” he said.

Zynga already has jumped onto Snapchat. And while it hasn’t provided details on what else is in the works, the company is developing a new multiplatform strategy.

“We have a saying, ‘Make platform transition your friend,’” Gibeau said. “You can turn yourself out of position, which frankly Zynga did by being so focused on Facebook.”

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