Softbank Founder Has 300-Year Plan in Wooing Sprint Nextel

SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son
Masayoshi Son, chairman and chief executive officer of SoftBank Corp., poses with an Apple Inc. iPhone 5 during its launch at SoftBank's flagship store in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

In 2010, Masayoshi Son, the billionaire founder of Softbank Corp., laid out a plan for the next 300 years. For a start, he would invest in 5,000 companies by 2040, giving his unborn successors a base to build on.

Son’s ambitions have made him Japan’s second-richest man, with a fortune estimated at $7.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He has taken stakes in Yahoo Inc., Alibaba Group and Zynga Inc., and in his biggest deal bought Vodafone Group Plc’s mobile-phone business in Japan in 2006. He is now aiming to expand in the U.S. and is in talks to take a controlling stake in Sprint Nextel Corp.

“Son has been buying up companies one after another,” said Mitsuo Shimizu, an analyst at Iwai Cosmo Securities. “He’s very bold and takes a lot of risks to make Softbank bigger.”

In his 300-year plan, Son, 55, laid out a Darwinian comparison of business to living species and forecast that 99.98 percent of companies would cease to exist in their current form over the next 30 years. He vowed Tokyo-based Softbank would survive.

“I’ve gathered you here to talk about our 30-year vision, but while I’m telling stories and this may be my last one, may as well make it 300 years,” Son said when he presented the plan in 2010. “As a founder, I’ve played my role by creating Softbank’s DNA.”

Declining Fortune

Softbank today plunged 17 percent, the biggest drop since its 1994 debut on Japan’s over-the-counter market, to 2,395 yen at the close of Tokyo trading. The talks to buy Sprint Nextel were initially reported last night by government broadcaster NHK and the Nikkei newspaper.

Son’s net worth fell with the stock’s decline to $7.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Son wasn’t immediately available to comment for this article, Takeaki Nukii, a Softbank spokesman, said by telephone.

The executive, born in Japan to Korean parents who had immigrated to the country, left home at 16 to study in the U.S. and was inspired to a career in technology after seeing a schematic for a microprocessor in 1975, according to a Softbank presentation.

His entrepreneurial streak emerged at the University of California, Berkeley, where he invented a voice-operated multilingual translator that he sold to Sharp Corp. for 100 million yen in 1979, about $456,000 at the average exchange rate that year, or $1.27 million today. He also capitalized on a burgeoning appetite for video games, importing bestselling Space Invaders machines from Japan and leasing them to cafeterias.

Challenging NTT

In the late 1980s, he offered a system enabling fixed-line phone users to choose operators with the cheapest rates, threatening the dominance of Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp., which was privatized in 1985. When Son introduced Softbank’s broadband Internet service in 2001, he grabbed customers from NTT with free modems and prices that undercut the larger operator’s by as much as half.

By 2006, Son had transformed his Internet venture capital company into a full-fledged phone service firm similar to NTT, spending more than 2 trillion yen to buy Japan Telecom Co. and the Vodafone unit.

Softbank was the first carrier for Apple Inc.’s iPhone and iPad in Japan, helping the company boost net income seven-fold over the past four years to a record 314 billion yen in the 12 months ended March 31.

The company’s shares tumbled after the Vodafone acquisition and have yet to fully recover. Softbank’s market value is 2.65 trillion yen as of today, compared with 3.49 trillion yen on March 3, 2006, the day before Softbank confirmed it was in talks to buy the Vodafone unit, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Son has said he aims to raise Softbank’s market value to 200 trillion yen by 2040.

“A person’s life is over in 50, 100 years,” said Son in 2010, as he updated a previous 300-year plan. “But a company lives on through the people it is composed of and Softbank group has to survive even after I’m gone.”

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