SoftBank CEO Son boasts an impressive list of friends
Global network of confidants helps company adapt to fast-changing IT world
TAKASHI SUGIMOTO, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO -- Masayoshi Son, the 59-year-old CEO of Japanese mobile carrier SoftBank Group, has built a long list of friends in both the business and political worlds over the years. And the list includes a lot of big names.
Ever since his earliest years, Son has rarely hesitated to talk to powerful people -- in December last year, he surprised the world by meeting with then U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Once he connects with people, Son keeps in touch with them no matter how busy he gets. His vast network has been instrumental in helping the company grow.
One of Son's best-known personal connections was with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. In 2006, just before SoftBank entered the mobile industry by acquiring Vodafone Japan, the Japanese arm of the British mobile company, Son showed Jobs a drawing of a mobile phone and asked him to commercialize it. It was a cross between the iPod, Apple's portable music player, and a Japanese mobile phone.
Jobs flatly rejected the request and the sketch, calling it ugly. But that attitude signaled to Son that something big was in the works. His intuition became a belief when Jobs told Son the next time they met that if he saw what Jobs was working on at the time, he would "shit his pants."
Jobs was referring to the iPhone. Son later won the exclusive right to sell the iPhone in Japan. When Jobs passed away in October 2011, Son "wept for Steve."
Son was introduced to Jobs by Larry Ellison, the co-founder of U.S. tech company Oracle. Son and Ellison, 72, reportedly discussed the future of the information revolution under a cherry tree in the Japanese-style garden of Ellison's home. When SoftBank entered the mobile industry, the company was bombarded with customer complaints calling for better connections. The company used an Oracle system to spot weaknesses in its network to improve access.
Friends of friends
Son has a favorite photo, of himself and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, 61, riding a golf cart, with Gates at the wheel. Son often jokes about the photo, saying, "This is the world's most expensive chauffeur." Their friendship dates back 30 years, when Son visited Gates in the U.S. to interview him for the first issue of a magazine Son had launched.
At the time, Gates recommended an American computer magazine to Son. Later, Son acquired the publisher and got to know Jerry Yang, 48. In 1995, Son invested in Yahoo, which had been founded by Yang. The following year, Son started Yahoo Japan.
Like Yang, Son "discovered" Jack Ma Yun, 52, chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding, while Ma was still little known to the world. Upon meeting Ma, Son decided to invest 2 billion yen ($17.8 million at today's rate) in his company. "I saw charisma in his eyes," Son later said of the decision. Son and Ma now serve as outside directors for each other's company. Ma advised Son last year when he chose not to hand over the company to his heir-apparent, Nikesh Arora.
Since he was in his 20s, Son has received advice from various industrial heavyweights. Tadashi Sasaki, 101, a former executive vice president of Japanese electronics company Sharp, has been a major adviser. In the early days, when Son was struggling to borrow money from banks, Sasaki offered his retirement pay and his home as collateral for Son's corporate loans, which saved Son's business. "I was ready to sacrifice for him," Sasaki later said.
These days, Son's confidants include Shigenobu Nagamori, chairman and CEO of Japanese motor maker Nidec, and Tadashi Yanai, chairman and CEO of Fast Retailing, the operator of Uniqlo clothing stores. Both men sit on SoftBank's board as outside directors.
After he met with Trump and pledged a large-scale investment in the U.S. without prior board approval, the two friends harshly criticized Son as they often said they would in that situation.
Son's global network is one of his most valuable assets as he navigates the rapid changes in the information technology industry.