Decoding Softbank’s mercurial chief, Masayoshi Son
Former executive close to the deal-maker says his Korean identity, supreme confidence and gambler’s mind are key to his personality
Masayoshi Son knows how to grab attention. The Softbank Group chief dominated tech headlines last year by launching the US$100 billion Softbank Vision Fund to invest in new technologies and undervalued tech firms worldwide. In a year-long saga, he also plowed US$5 billion into China’s Didi Chuxing and US$9 billion into US-based Uber Technologies in a two-pronged bid to corner the global ride-hailing industry.
These moves have triggered a burst of often conflicting articles in the Western press speculating as to Japan’s richest man’s motives. Adding to the confusion are stories that describe him alternately as a bully, a bubble maker, a master of due diligence, a consensus-seeker or the epitome of a one-man show.
Much focuses on what the tech tycoon has done. There’s less on how 60-year-old Son thinks and what actually drives him.
Stanley Chao’s read on Son is better than most. The Los Angeles-based business consultant and author served as Son’s executive vice-president for Asia-Pacific in the 1990s when Softbank owned Kingston Technology, a maker of memory chips for electronics in Fountain Valley, California.
Chao spent hours with Son behind closed doors, sat in on meetings and served as his problem solver. He offers unique insights on what shaped Son’s personality, his thought processes and what inspires his deals.
Proud of his Korean roots
A lot of coverage, Chao says, doesn’t delve deeply enough into the life experiences that molded Son’s worldview.
One major factor is ethnicity. Son is a third-generation Korean-Japanese, born in Kyushu. According to Chao, Son and his family had plenty of exposure to the racial discrimination experienced by Japan’s more than 850,000 ethnic Koreans.
“Son has a chip on his shoulder,” Chao told Asia Times. One thing that drives Son is that he wants to prove that he isn’t a second-class citizen in his home country. “He wants to show the Japanese that a Korean-Japanese can make it big, and being the richest Japanese partly proves his point.”
But even that is not enough for a man whose grandparents emigrated from Korea to Japan. He also wants to leave a long-lasting legacy in Japan and in the rest of the world, according to Chao. “He’s looking for respect in a land that has not respected him, his family or this ethnicity. I believe this is the biggest reason that drives him.”
Son’s style is already successful. He’s playing with house money now. And even if he blows everything, he’s still a success. He came from nothing – from being bullied to now being the bully
Son’s official Wikipedia bio in fact shows the importance of ethnicity in his identity. His family adopted the Japanese surname Yasumoto (安本) to avoid anti-Korean discrimination after arriving in Japan. Son used this surname as a child but reverted to his Korean surname as an adult in an atypical move for a member of his community.
On the flip side, Son’s identity and sympathies are very much rooted in Japan. He was one of the few big Japanese CEOs who responded directly to the country’s devastating Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. He pledged US$120 million of his personal wealth plus salary until retirement to help the victims. The amount exceeded the donations of large individual Japanese corporations, including Softbank itself. Son also proposed a plan to wean Japan off nuclear power by investing in wind and solar energy.
“At the end of the day (Son) connects more to being Japanese than Korean,” Chao said. “He can’t speak Korean, and doesn’t know a lot about Korean culture. Ultimately, he is Japanese … He cares and wants to do good for the country and its people.”
Softbank didn’t respond to a request from Asia Times to interview Son.
Another key feature of Son’s personality, according to Chao, is extreme confidence in himself and his decision-making. “This is why he can make billion-dollar decisions in 30 minutes.”
Chao recalls sitting in on a meeting in 1996, when Son met with company founders John Tu and David Sun to buy Kingston Technology from them. “Son asked some simple, basic questions about the memory and computer industry, and within 30 minutes said he wanted to buy Kingston,” Chao remembers. “No due diligence, no lawyers, no nothing.” The US$2.1 billion deal was done two months later.
It’s also this confidence that allows Son to take big risks, according to Chao. But he doesn’t perceive his billion-dollar investments as risks. That’s because, in his mind, he’s convinced himself that he is right. This is despite the fact that Son’s batting record shows that his mistakes tend to outnumber his correct calls.
Kingston, in the end, turned out to be a real loser. Chao says Son couldn’t afford several hundred million dollars in upcoming balloon payments and sold the company back to Tu and Sun.
His confidence also allows Son to ignore small stuff and not burden himself with details. “He meets, gets the macro view of a business, and makes a decision all by himself to buy, hold or sell,” Chao said.
In interviews, Son stresses that he confides in and consults with his team. But Chao says he never does this. “He doesn’t read reports, rarely consults with lawyers. He just tells people, ‘Get the deal done, and do it quickly. Whatever it takes.’ He’ll fire you if you say ‘no’ or tell him that something cannot be done. He’ll just say: ‘find a way.’”
Steven Kaplan, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, was quoted in a recent Bloomberg story as saying the “jury’s still out” on whether Son’s furious deal-making will work.
“I beg to differ,” Chao said.”(Son’s) style is already successful. He’s playing with house money now. And even if he blows everything, he’s still a success. He came from nothing – from being bullied to now being the bully.”
Chao says that Son has no patience. “When I ran Kingston Japan, I had 15 minutes with him a week to go over whatever I wanted. That was it, no matter how important my issues were, you had to make it fast,” Chao recalled. “I made my points, he gave a directive in a few words and off I went.”
Son never really wanted to know the details, just the big picture. “He sees a vision and then tells you to go out and get that vision. I think that’s what he’s doing with the owners of these companies [he acquires].”
Ambition to control all data
Make no mistake, however — Son has a master plan. A key part of this is owning and controlling all of the world’s data. Chao says it’s all part of a 300-year business plan that Son laid out back in the 1990s. The preoccupation with data also intersects with Son’s interest in artificial intelligence and developing digitally-based human telepathy.
The seemingly unrelated torrent of investments that Son has made over the years all lead back to this grand scheme, Chao says.
Chao has great admiration for Son. But take away his dreams of billions of connected devices and, boiled down to his essentials, Son is basically “a gambler with a chip on his shoulder.”
As Chao adds, though: “This chip drives him to be better and greater.”