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Ex-Merrill broker brings trading skills to Rakuten sports teams

Big name bookings have led to full stadiums and sponsorships

Yozo Tachibana, president of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, poses in front of a packed Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi. (Photo by Yoichi Iwata)

TOKYO -- How much overlap is there between trading bonds and running a professional baseball team? Quite a bit, it turns out.

At Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi in northeastern Japan, fans crowded in more than two hours before the first pitch to see the home team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

The team, owned by online retailing giant Rakuten, averaged more than 27,000 spectators per game through May 27, up about 50% from its average of 17,793 in 2013, when the Golden Eagles won their first Japan Series championship.

"It'd be nice if we could sell out for every game," said Yozo Tachibana, president of Rakuten Baseball, looking around the packed stadium. "But I think we're still among the less popular of the Nippon Professional Baseball's 12 clubs. There's still so much more to do."

Tachibana is a former managing executive officer of Merrill Lynch Japan Securities. He now applies the skills he cultivated in the world of finance to that of sports. It looks to be working. He saw the club win its first championship only a year after he became president in August 2012.

He has also been the president of professional soccer club Vissel Kobe, also owned by Rakuten, since October 2017. The club logged operating profits of 9.66 billion yen ($89.3 million), a J. League record, in fiscal 2018. That was thanks to an increase in sponsor income after the acquisition of former Spain and Barcelona star Andres Iniesta. Tachibana was instrumental in convincing Iniesta to join the team.

Tachibana himself was a rugby star during his college days at Keio University. He joined Salomon Brothers Securities in 1994, a natural choice for him, as many of his rugby club seniors were already active in finance.

After a successful stint as a bond broker, he moved to Merrill Lynch Japan Securities, where he became a managing executive officer.

The big career change came after he got to know Rakuten Chairman and President Hiroshi Mikitani through an acquaintance. In 2012, Mikitani and Toru Shimada, then head of the Golden Eagles, approached Tachibana with an offer to become president.

He accepted, and decided his goals for the team would be a championship and sound financial management.

Under his leadership, the Golden Eagles spent more than 10 billion yen on their home stadium to increase attendance, the foundation of the club's earnings. The number of seats increased to 30,508 from about 23,000, and the synthetic-grass field was replaced with a natural one, like those in the major leagues.

An amusement zone with a Ferris wheel and merry-go-round beyond the left-field stands is open even when there are no games. A section of elevated seats behind the first-base side is scheduled to open this summer. Some of these investments are already paying off, helping the club log operating profits in 2017 and 2018.

In addition to bringing an eye for investment to the team, Tachibana employs his experience of working at foreign-affiliated brokerages when negotiating with big foreign players.

When he took the helm in 2012, the Golden Eagles finished the season in fourth place. The club's biggest weakness was a lack of bombs -- it had only 52 homers that season, the lowest total in the Pacific League.

Tachibana turned to Andruw Jones, a Curacaoan who launched 434 homers in the majors. He traveled to Atlanta, where Jones was living at the time, to persuade the slugger to join the team.

Vissel Kobe midfielder Andres Iniesta moves the ball against Columbus Crew.   © Reuters

He has done the same for Vissel Kobe, the soccer club he leads. In 2016, when Tachibana was vice chairman of the club, he spent about seven hours on Christmas at a ski resort in Salzburg, Austria, persuading German striker Lukas Podolski to sign.

Last year, Rakuten surprised the soccer world when it announced Iniesta, the Spanish star, would join Vissel Kobe. Mikitani asked Tachibana to persuade Iniesta to join the club, and Tachibana flew to Spain the next day. Iniesta was about to sign with a Chinese soccer club, but Tachibana convinced him that Mikitani wanted Iniesta to change Japanese soccer.

"It's exciting to get a big deal done, isn't it?" Tachibana said. "I remember my heart pounding when I bid for bond auctions by phone in my 20s. Closing a deal with star players is just like that."

Tachibana is not the first to find success in both sports and finance. While he was a director and senior managing director at Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp., Hiroaki Shukuzawa led the Japanese national rugby squad to a historic first-ever victory at the 1991 World Cup.

Shukuzawa and Tachibana were close until the former died in 2006. Tachibana has adopted his friend's motto as his own: "Hard work prevails over luck."

The number of people working in the financial sector has dropped 40% since 1990, when Japan was still experiencing an asset bubble. But financial talent is still in demand.

Among bankers who change jobs, only 10% move to other banks. The remaining 90% find jobs at consultancies and other businesses, according to data from employment agency Recruit Career.

"Financial talent is in high demand in times of rapid change," said Kaoru Fujii, editor-in-chief of job placement magazine Rikunabi Next.

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