SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son aims to be biggest tech investor with Saudi deal
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Tokyo: It turns out Masayoshi Son isn’t ready to retire after all.
Just a year ago, SoftBank Group Corp.’s founder looked poised to fulfil his long-stated plan of stepping aside in his 60’s. He had a global telecom empire, track record of spectacularly successful investments and a bright young successor. Instead, the 59-year-old edged aside his heir apparent, cut the biggest deal of his career yet and revealed on Friday his ambition to become one of the world’s most powerful investors.
SoftBank said it is forming a new fund to put as much as $100 billion in the global technology industry in the next five years, partnering with Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund to find companies that will become influential in the future. By comparison, all the venture capital funds in the world disbursed a record $129.5 billion in funding in 2015, according to CB Insights.
The man who once proclaimed his goal of creating the world’s most valuable company isn’t hiding his ambition: Over the next decade, he aims to be “the biggest investor” in technology.
In other words, Japan’s second-richest man isn’t going anywhere. Son in 2014 brought in Nikesh Arora, luring the former Google executive with a pay package that rivaled those of Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook and Walt Disney Co.’s Bob Iger. He spent two years grooming him as a successor only to change his mind in June. A month later SoftBank announced plans for a $32 billion takeover of chip designer ARM Holdings Plc, Son’s biggest bet to date and a wager on the future of interconnected devices.
“For some time, it seemed like Son has fatigued, considering retirement and bringing in Arora. It is pretty clear now that he is still full of zeal,” said Makoto Kikuchi, chief executive officer of Myojo Asset Management Co.
It is not yet clear who will call the shots at what is tentatively named SoftBank Vision Fund and the Japanese company declined to comment further, noting the fund had not yet closed. SoftBank named Rajeev Misra, its head of strategic finance, to lead the project.
Son has made tens of billions in returns from investments in companies including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, Yahoo and Supercell Oy, and the new fund will likely pursue a similar strategy of backing technology companies at all stages. While Arora was SoftBank’s president, the company had plans to put about $3 billion into startups each year.
During his two year tenure, Arora spearheaded investments in Indian e-commerce provider Snapdeal.com, ride-hailing service Ola Cabs, real-estate website Housing.com and hotel-booking app Oyo Rooms. In October 2015, SoftBank led a $1 billion fund-raising round for US-based online lender Social Finance Inc.
“Over the next decade, the SoftBank Vision Fund will be the biggest investor in the technology sector,” Son, chairman and chief executive officer of SoftBank, said in a statement Friday. “We will further accelerate the information revolution by contributing to its development.”
The Saudi government will consider putting money into the fund and become the lead investment partner, SoftBank said in the statement. The Tokyo-based company, which will invest as much as $25 billion, signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding with the Saudis, who may put in as much as $45 billion over the next five years. Other large global investors may participate to increase the pool to $100 billion.
SoftBank said that the fund will be reflected on its consolidated financial statements, without giving further details. Its shares rose as much as 3.7% in Tokyo. The stock had gained 5.8% this year before today, compared with a 12% decline in the benchmark Nikkei 225 index.
The company is stepping up investment activity even though it has more than $100 billion in debt. SoftBank has relied on borrowing and earnings from its domestic telecom operations to pay for investments in start-ups in India, US and China while balancing losses at its US subsidiary Sprint Corp. By tapping outside investors, Son will be able to cut more ambitious deals than he could on his own.
“ARM acquisition has brought Son to a limit of how much he can invest just with SoftBank’s balance sheet,” Myojo’s Kikuchi said.
The company’s high-speed Internet and wireless services in Japan generated 1.16 trillion yen ($11.2 billion) of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization in the fiscal year ended 31 March. SoftBank has 3.5 trillion yen of bonds maturing in the next five years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“It’s conceivable that after capturing the core of the Internet of Things with ARM, Son will next look to other semiconductors, electronic components and software,” said Hideki Yasuda, an analyst at Ace Research Institute in Tokyo. “SoftBank has a proven track record of investment successes. They are looking for another Alibaba.” Bloomberg