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Japan's Softbank CEO Demonstrates Appetite For Risk

Oct 18, 2012
Originally published on October 18, 2012 12:11 pm

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Earlier this week, a Japanese company announced a $20 billion bid for a majority stake in Sprint-Nextel, America's third-largest mobile carrier. The deal was launched by the CEO of Softbank - an executive who says he has a 300-year business plan and who is fond of making investments his peers call crazy.

Lucy Craft has this profile.

LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: In a society where conformity, conservatism and harmony are virtues, CEO Masayoshi Son breaks all the rules, says his biographer, Shinichi Sano.

SHINICHI SANO: (Through Translator) For better or worse, Japan runs slowly, by building consensus. But at Masayoshi Son's company, decisions can be made in a second.

CRAFT: Waseda University business professor Koji Aiba says no other Japanese executive has Son's appetite and skills for taking on risk.

KOJI AIBA: He understands what capitalism is. Unlike the traditional Japanese managers, who think the company is a family.

CRAFT: Japan's second-richest man was born in a hardscrabble Korean ghetto in southern Japan without running water, the son of a pig farmer who brewed moonshine.

Son's father would later own a restaurant and pachinko game parlors - the default occupations for Japan's ethnic Koreans, who were shut out of mainstream corporate Japan.

In a stark and poignant speech to students last summer, Son described the unbearable weight of growing up Korean in Japan.

MASAYOSHI SON: I was living in Japan but I felt I don't belong to anywhere. I don't belong to this country. I don't belong to the friends that I was surrounded with. So to me, I almost - was almost committing suicide. I didn't tell to my friends, of course. But it was that much feeling that I was struggling with.

CRAFT: But Son's life turned around when he moved to California, studied at Berkeley, and met Bill Gates and Steve Jobs - right at the start of the tech revolution. He brought his own revolutionary ideas back to Japan, where he started Softbank, a computer software wholesaler. He's now worth almost eight billion dollars.

SON: If I didn't go to the States, if I didn't go to UC Berkeley, if I didn't meet with all these people in the States, my life was totally different. There's no SoftBank, there's no Masayoshi Son. I may have had totally different life.

CRAFT: Son used SoftBank to enter the mobile market in 2006, buying the then-unprofitable Vodafone Japan and aggressively undercutting his rivals with outrageous discount plans for consumers.

The company took off after Son won exclusive rights to sell the iPhone in Japan. Under his leadership, SoftBank launched one of the quirkiest and most successful ad campaigns in Japanese history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOFTBANK AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

CRAFT: A gruff-talking, white dog became a smash hit, replacing human actors, the story goes, because Son dreamed up new marketing ideas so fast, the only way his ad men could keep up was by using a talking-dog that could be voiced-over quickly. Marketers wonder whether similar tactics could be used to goose sales in the U.S.

Son has complained about slow network speeds in the U.S., and his capital will accelerate the rollout of a faster network for Sprint. The deal will make it the world's third-largest mobile carrier - an important step for a man with outsized ambitions.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.