TOKYO -- From San Francisco International Airport, it's about a 15-minute ride along the bay to a four-story building in Silicon Valley where a Japanese telecom carrier is setting up its headquarters. The sign reads "SoftBank."
The top floor is reserved for directors and executives. Stepping off an elevator, one emerges into a wide-open space, but divided by a glass corridor, through which an artificial creek flows. The soothing atmosphere is reminiscent of the ambience at a Japanese-style inn.
More than 100 selected employees and executives from SoftBank, U.S. carrier Sprint and other affiliates work in the building. Most of them are engineers. Some of them build and maintain mobile phone networks; others develop new handsets. SoftBank Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son spends about half of his work hours each month in this building, devoting the time to Sprint. SoftBank last year acquired a stake of roughly 80% in the struggling U.S. carrier.
Executives from SoftBank and Sprint meet in a fourth-floor conference room at least once a month. They discuss problems and devise strategies. The discussions sometimes become heated.
When asked why he had set up the Silicon Valley office, Son answered because "Silicon Valley is the global center of the IT industry."
Son's explanation goes on. "SoftBank is not merely a telephone company, it is a mobile Internet company." Son wants to keep SoftBank growing. For that, his company will need to come up with new kinds of information technology services. And Silicon Valley just happens to be the place where a lot of the globe's IT innovations come from.
"I will have my say"
This is not the first time for Son to do business in the U.S. About 20 years ago, he went about acquiring U.S. companies one after another, including the company running Comdex, a computer dealers' exhibition, as well as Ziff Davis, a digital media company.
"I regret (the way I ran those companies)," Son said. He did not actively involve himself in managing the companies, thinking he should leave that to their U.S. executives. The companies failed to achieve high growth, and SoftBank divested itself of them, maintaining only a few U.S. operating bases until it acquired Sprint.
Back home, Son succeeded in rebuilding the ailing Japanese arm of Vodafone Group, acquired in 2006. Son undertook the rebuilding with an acute sense of urgency, thinking that the company would go bankrupt at any moment unless he became actively involved. Son is doing the same with the rebuilding of Sprint. This is why he does not hesitate to yell at Sprint executives while telling them what he believes is necessary to rehabilitate the carrier.
Son is unique among Japanese corporate managers. He speaks English well enough to negotiate deals with American rivals -- without the help of interpreters. He has extensive connections with top executives at major U.S. corporations. His friendships with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs, who established Apple, are well-known. He also understands technical details and legal issues.
Son owes what he is today to his adolescent experiences. He quit a Japanese high school at the age of 16 and went to the U.S. That was in 1974. Some three years later, after studying at a language school, he entered the economics department of the University of California, Berkeley. Living near Silicon Valley, Son around this time read a magazine article about microchips made by Intel. The accompanying pictures of the chips inspired Son's interest in the IT industry.
When he came back to his birth country, Son made up his mind to "become the best corporate manager in Japan." He maintained his interest in the IT industry and went on to establish SoftBank, at the time a wholesaler of packaged computer software. In 30-plus years, SoftBank has grown into one of the most noteworthy entities in the global IT industry.
Fostering a successor
Nearly 40 years ago, when he was 19, Son made a 50-year life plan. The plan called for his 20-something self to establish a company, his 30-something self to build a war chest of at least 100 billion yen ($985 million) and his 40-something self staking at least 1 trillion yen in business. More or less, he has reached the stars he has shot for.
The plan has additional goals for his 50-something self to complete his business to a point and calls for his 60-something self to hand over his empire to a new generation.
So in July 2010, Son founded a school for future corporate managers. Some 300 students, selected from inside and outside SoftBank, attend SoftBank Academia, in Japan. The students are taught how to devise business models and make effective presentations. Son himself gives occasional lectures.
Now 56, Son has given himself until he reaches 60 to make SoftBank one of the world's leading companies. After that, well, the Silicon Valley headquarters is also supposed to help his 60-something self conclude his teenager self's life plan.