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Race to succeed SoftBank's Son takes off

Three deputies named for first time as the company shifts focus to investments

From left, Marcelo Claure, Masayoshi Son, Katsunori Sago and Rajeev Misra.

TOKYO -- Nearly two years to the day SoftBank Group's one-time heir apparent Nikesh Arora stepped down as second-in-command, the Japanese technology and investment conglomerate officially installed a triumvirate of executive vice presidents now seen as front-runners to replace Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son.

A shareholders meeting on Wednesday formally approved the promotion of Marcelo Claure, who is the group's chief operating officer as well as its Sprint unit's executive chairman, and that of Rajeev Misra, who heads up SoftBank's $100 billion Vision Fund.

Shareholders also endorsed the unusual outside appointment of Katsunori Sago, who retired as executive vice president of Japan Post Bank on Tuesday, to take on a dual role as chief strategy officer overseeing the group's entire investment approach.

In addressing the meeting on Wednesday, Sago expressed a desire to help steer the multinational in the right direction. "I'm moving from finance to the technology field," he said. "I'm excited."

Before becoming a top asset manager at Japan Post Bank, Sago served as a deputy president at Goldman Sachs Japan. His personal earnings ran so high that at one point he paid more in taxes than Son himself.   

Son saw in Sago an extraordinary talent that needed to be brought in to the fold. "He possesses highly specialized subsets like knowledge and experience in finance," Son told Nikkei in late May. "His character is outstanding, and I would like for him to work on various fronts as my lieutenant."

SoftBank investors head to the company's general shareholders meeting in Tokyo on June 20. SoftBank investors head to the company's general shareholders meeting in Tokyo on June 20.

The other two executive vice presidents hold track records that are just as impressive. Claure first joined the SoftBank family as the founder and chief executive of Brightstar, the Miami-based cellphone distributor purchased in 2014 for $1.26 billion. Recognizing Claure's feat in developing a global supply chain from scratch, Son appointed him as CEO of the U.S. mobile carrier Sprint.

Now Claure is actively fulfilling his role as SoftBank's COO, handling negotiations this month with the Indian government over funding a $60 billion solar power project. He could even be seen on Twitter studying Japanese in an apparent endeavor to acclimate himself to the Tokyo headquarters.

Misra also plays an outsize role at SoftBank. Last year, he helped establish the Vision Fund, the world's biggest private equity vehicle, backed in part by the Saudi royal family. For Son, who has said discovering growth targets is "so much fun I can't help myself," Misra acts as his right-hand man.

Other than Arora, the only person to serve as a SoftBank Group executive vice president or the equivalent position is Ken Miyauchi, who is now president of core domestic mobile arm SoftBank Corp. For three individuals to simultaneously hold the same title indicates that the organization is at a major turning point.  

"In SoftBank's 35 years, no more than 10 of those were spent in telecommunications," Son told shareholders on Wednesday. "We want to return to our original mission and become a strategic holding company."

The group is making good on that vision by taking SoftBank Corp. public and setting it up as an independent company. Son also agreed to relinquish control of Sprint to enable the carrier to hash out a merger with rival T-Mobile US.

Meanwhile, the chairman is focused on assembling a "herd" of companies within SoftBank's portfolio whose synergies will generate value. "I have spent 97% of my brainpower on telecom operations," Son told shareholders, but he promises in the future to focus just as intensely "in investments."

In January, SoftBank became the top shareholder of Uber Technologies, the ride-hailing leader and the ultimate unicorn. In recent weeks, the group attempted to buy a chunk of reinsurer Swiss Re, but talks ended up falling through.

SoftBank Group Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son. (Photo by Keiichiro Sato) SoftBank Group Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son. (Photo by Keiichiro Sato)

Yet the Tokyo-based company will continue to pursue financials, hoping their steady cash flows will engender funds that feed an internal virtuous cycle of investment. Son apparently hired financial pro Sago to supervise such fund allocations in the sector.

Whoever ends up succeeding Son will have big shoes to fill. The charismatic businessman controls an organization that earned 1.3 trillion yen ($11.8 billion) in group operating profit on 9.15 trillion yen in sales during the last full year ended March.

Son originally recruited Arora from Google specifically to groom him as his replacement, but things soured in 2016 when the chief decided he wanted to remain at the top for at least another five to 10 years. Arora subsequently left the group on June 22 that year, just before the annual shareholders meeting held the same day.

In main part due to the Arora blowup, Son has no choice but to remain circumspect with executive picks. He also finds it necessary to heed criticism from all corners. "There are still possibilities for various people," Son said when discussing possible successors, leaving open the chance a dark horse might ascend to the coveted throne ahead of the three executive vice presidents.

During the shareholders meeting, not one investor raised a question concerning the group's next chief executive, illustrating the deeply ingrained belief that SoftBank equals Son.

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