Succession lessons from Nikesh Arora’s SoftBank exit
Singapore: Tsk tsk. What an unnecessary sacrifice of an heir apparent. Just because SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son was having too much fun running his investment empire to give up the reins, chosen successor Nikesh Arora has packed his bags, sold his stock and prepared to depart, even without a destination in mind.
But why? Son is 58, and former Google executive Arora a mere 48. Considering Warren Buffett is still soldiering on at 85, Son leaving at 60 to spend more time with Pepper, SoftBank’s $2,000 robot, would have been a shame. As for the younger man’s burning ambition to be his own boss, that could have been mollified with a mix of poetic inspiration and real-world evidence.
In the circumstances, John Milton’s When I Consider How My Light Is Spent would have been the ideal encouragement. The sonnet’s last line, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” could have made a nice office poster for Arora. The fortitude of Florentino Ariza, who waited 51 years, 9 months and 4 days to be united with the love of his life in Love in the Time of Cholera, could have provided reinforcement. In the meantime, Arora might have considered leaving a copy of W. B. Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium lying around for Son. The poem’s opening line, “That is no country for old men,” still resonates.
If Arora is less easily persuaded by world literature than by hard numbers, then there are plenty of those, too. A Bloomberg Gadfly analysis of publicly listed companies with a market value of more than $10 billion throws up more than 100 that have executive chairman and chief executive posts occupied by different people, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. On average, the executive chairman—who usually gets the better office—is 11 years older than the CEO, who’s 56.
Pointing to that list, Son could have taught Arora some of the finer points of playing second fiddle. Companies as diverse as Next, Expedia, Marriott, Discovery Communications, Dassault, Charles Schwab, Constellation Brands, BNP Paribas, Nike, KDDI and Nippon Telegraph all have CEOs who have been around anywhere between three and 21 years, and who still take orders from above. At Twenty-First Century Fox, CEO James Murdoch, 43, has elder brother Lachlan Murdoch, 44, as executive chairman, father Rupert Murdoch, 85, as non-executive chairman and Chase Carey, 62, as vice-chairman. That’s almost as crowded an affair as X-Men: Apocalypse.
A continued Son-Arora JV could have been less fraught, something like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In a few decades, SoftBank could have blossomed to a Buffett and Charlie Munger-type partnership, with Son and Arora finishing each other’s sentences.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. SoftBank shares rose as much as 3.9% on Wednesday partly because Son, founder of the Internet and mobile-phone giant, is staying in charge. The relief may be short term. Not only has Son lost the man who spearheaded SoftBank’s investments in e-commerce startups in Asia, he’s also lost a fail-safe for the day when thinking about the next billion-dollar business won’t hold the same appeal as stealing a little more time with Pepper. Bloomberg