Japan is not a growth market.

Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Japan's Maverick Billionaire Bets Big Abroad

a | A

Masayoshi Son, the billionaire founder and CEO of SoftBank, Japan's telecom and Internet giant, is one of his country's few mavericks. When his company placed a $20 million bet 15 years ago on Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce company, plenty of peers considered it too risky a venture. Since then, Son's investment has paid out more than $70 billion, strengthening SoftBank and making him Japan's second richest man.

As Son begins scouring the globe for the next big thing -- he recently made an investment in Snapdeal, India's leading web marketplace -- corporate Japan should seriously consider emulating his gutsy approach to doing business.

When Son invested in Alibaba, he was motivated not just by China's potential, but also Japan's aging and shrinking market. Son realized something all too many of his peers still don't: Japanese deflation isn't some passing fad, but a demographic phenomenon the Bank of Japan can't reverse by weakening the yen.

Son has matched his strategic sense with tactical ingenuity. When he pulled off a $16 billion deal to buy Vodafone in 2006, it was financed by Japan’s largest asset-backed loan at the time. And he turned even more heads in 2013 with his $22 billion purchase of Sprint Nextel. Although Son earned his reputation as a man who is willing to take risks, the Sprint negotiations showed he also knew how to avoid unnecessary ones. Son hedged the deal by fixing the cost of dollars needed for the acquisition at 82.2 yen each. With the yen having plunged 30 percent since then, Son's strategy saved shareholders billions.

Son is now searching for the next big thing. Only time will tell if CEO Kunal Bahl's Snapdeal, which SoftBank has lavished so far with $627 million, is it. But Son is spreading his bets. In December, I happened to be in Bangkok chatting with GrabTaxi founder Anthony Tan on the day Son chose to take a $250 million stake in the Southeast Asian cab-booking service. This week, Son invested $1 billion in South Korean online retailer Coupang. There even have been rumors of a bid for Hollywood's DreamWorks Animation.

Many of Son's bets have a common thread: They rely on positive demographic trends elsewhere in Asia. While sales of adult diaper sales exceeds that of baby nappies in Japan, much of the rest of Asia has growing populations with rising incomes and a keen interest in using the Internet for services, shopping and entertainment.

Moreover, Son doesn't allow nationalist sentiment to cloud his judgment. Although Japan's government has been battling China's rise -- both rhetorically and financially -- the nation's two richest men have been using it to make a fortune. Tadashi Yanai, purveyor of the Uniqlo brand, sells affordable made-in-China clothes -- a fast-growing share of them being snapped up by the mainland's swelling middle class. Son, meanwhile, is still enjoying the spoils of his company's Alibaba wager.

Thanks to those gains, SoftBank's default risk recently hit a four-year low. The price of insuring its bonds against non-payment fell 10 basis points last month to 112, the lowest since June 2011. SoftBank's stock-investment profits (about $81 billion) now far exceed its net debt of $67 billion. And rather than sink into complacency, Son has used the Alibaba windfall as an opportunity to look for new targets abroad and skirt the structural problems in Japan's domestic economy.

Son's tirelessness makes him an outlier among his peers in Japan. Although Toyota, Suntory and Japan Post have been looking for acquisitions in Asia's developing markets, most other Japanese CEO's have been content to let the weak yen  do their work for them by goosing their exports. In that sense, the Bank of Japan has been complicit in the country's corporate complacency.

Not all of Son's big bets will pay off: There are signs that his acquisition of Sprint could prove a misstep, for example. But Alibaba has proven a big enough hit that it won't matter. And Snapdeal could also be a success of that scale, too, if India ever experiences an e-commerce boom.

The point is, global business is a slugger's game and Son is smart enough to keep swinging for the fences. Japan would be much better off if Son's peers weren't resigned to bunting.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Willie Pesek at wpesek@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net