OSLO (Reuters) - Norwegian media group Schibsted plans to add 200 people to its 1,800-strong technology team in the next year to further develop its online classified ads business and fend off competition from Facebook, its chief executive says.
Schibsted holds market-leading positions in local classified advertising websites across Europe including Finn in Norway and Leboncoin in France, and has a big presence in Asia and Latin America.
Everything from old ski clothes to cars are bought and sold on Schibsted's sites while the company is recruiting heavily to deepen its offering in categories like real estate and jobs.
Schibsted faces a test of whether it can fend off the likes of Facebook and Google, exploiting its local character in a $21 billion industry which McKinsey & Co sees growing at 10 percent annually.
Facebook, which is searching for new ways to engage users, launched its "Marketplace" in October where people can buy and sell items locally, in what was seen as a step into the classified advertising market.
Facebook must be taken "very seriously", Schibsted Chief Executive Rolv Erik Ryssdal told Reuters in an interview.
"So far, we think they are enlarging the total market, but we are watching very closely what they are doing," he said.
The classified ads business accounted for 38 percent of Schibsted's revenues last year and 81 percent of its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization, which amounted to 2 billion crowns ($239 million).
The launch of Facebook's Marketplace has weighed heavily on Schibsted shares, which have fallen 22 percent since October to trade around 177.6 crowns on Tuesday, a near 40 percent drop this year.
"If Facebook is serious about this and willing to say 'this is a game for me which I'm willing to play for the next five years' I think they are in a very strong position to win this game," said Thomas Schumacher, an online marketplace specialist at Digital McKinsey.
With 6,800 employees in 30 countries, Schibsted dominates the classified ads market in much of Europe. South Africa's Naspers runs Russia's biggest classified ads site, while in the United States a range of players including letgo, eBay and start-up OfferUp compete in the market.
Schibsted has been cutting costs in its newspaper division while spending more on its technology operations and recruiting in its five European technology hubs of London, Barcelona, Stockholm, Oslo and Krakow.
In the past two years Schibsted has recruited a team of 100 in London. Facebook announced last month it would hire 500 new staff in Britain next year, adding to the 1,000 people it already employs there.
Schibsted is investing in its mobile "boot sale" app Shpock which is available in six countries. It is also working to boost its professional content, aimed at commercial sellers, in real estate, jobs and cars - areas which it believes can generate greater revenues.
Developers are working on products like messaging, automatic picture recognition and pricing tools for professionals.
One Nordic fund manager with a position in Schibsted felt the Facebook threat had been overplayed as it looked like the social media giant was not planning much in the "professional" market.
Ryssdal said it would require something very special to disrupt the markets that Schibsted dominates today.
"Traditionally what Facebook and Google are good at is making big and scalable solutions while what we are good at is focusing on exactly what are we doing and then adapting to local markets both product-wise but also with boots on the ground," he said.
Editing by Adrian Croft