Softbank President Credited With Making Company an Industry Leader
He’s known as Japan’s Bill Gates.
It’s a fitting title for Softbank Corp. President Masayoshi Son, the top name in Japan’s personal computer business, and an extraordinary rags-to-riches success story in a society that tends to squelch both start-up firms and self-made mavericks.
Softbank is the largest software distributor in Japan. The companies it has touched through acquisition, investments or joint ventures, make up a list of the hottest players in the computer business: Microsoft Corp., Yahoo, Novell, Cisco Systems, Ziff-Davis, Comdex, CyberCash, Freeloader, among others.
“We’re the No. 1 company in this business,” Son said with a quiet ease that’s startling to those more used to the typically oblique, self-effacing Japanese speech.
“What’s key is to believe in your product, your technology or your company--how you can pour your spirit into it.”
Although some analysts caution against perpetual growth prospects for a strategy so centered around acquisitions, Son’s approach has worked so far.
For the fiscal year ending in March, Softbank’s consolidated pretax profit tripled from the previous year, totaling 14 billion yen, or $132 million. Sales rose 77% to 171 billion yen, or $1.6 billion.
“He’s probably a genius,” Nomura Research Institute analyst Yoshinori Tanahashi said of Son. “He spotted a great business opportunity from the get-go.”
Son invented a pocket translator while in college in the United States and it was later bought for $1 million by Sharp Corp. He used the money to start Softbank in 1981.
In the past two years, Softbank has acquired two prominent U.S. companies in the computer industry: Interface Group, biggest producer of computer trade shows including Comdex, and Ziff-Davis Publishing Co., biggest publisher of computer magazines.
Softbank is also the largest shareholder in Yahoo Inc., which started as a service that helps personal computer users find information on the World Wide Web.
Son has set up joint ventures with Microsoft to market business application software and develop video games in Japan. With video game maker Sega Enterprises, Softbank formed a U.S. company to sell arcade and home video games software for use on PCs with Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system.
In person, the slightly built, unpretentious Son, 38, doesn’t appear the part of the savvy, aggressive American-style entrepreneur. He wears an unobtrusive gray suit, no flashy jewelry. His demeanor is patient and matter-of-fact rather than commanding.
“Son-san--he’s walking down the street, you can never see him as somebody who is a billionaire,” said Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo.
Yang described Son as the kind of unassuming, approachable guy, who loves late-night pizza parties, adding, “He is very down to earth.”
Such qualities may have helped Son maneuver in conformist, hierarchical Japan.
Besides comparing him to Microsoft founder Gates, the local media also call Son “ojin-kiraah,” or “Old-Man-Killer,” referring to his knack for charming the elders of big business.
“I make a point to respect Japanese culture and be courteous to older people,” Son said in a recent interview.
Son, a graduate of UC Berkeley, is also adept at doing business with Americans, giving him a strategic edge over his Japanese rivals.
Japan’s personal computer industry, although growing rapidly, still lags behind the United States. And Americans have definitely outrun the Japanese in software development and Internet use.
Son acknowledges being a member of a discriminated minority in Japan--his grandfather emigrated from the Korean Peninsula to work in the coal mines--may have helped him turn his eyes abroad early.
His parents, who always encouraged his ambitions, ran restaurant businesses in Japan.
“Being of Korean background, I thought as a child that things might be pretty hard,” he recalled.
Inspired by the free spirit of the West Coast, he moved to the United States while in high school. It was in the United States that Son found his ethnic pride. He dropped his Japanese last name, Yasumoto, and reclaimed his Korean name.
“I found my identity--that I didn’t have to fit a certain mold but that I was me,” he said.
“All human beings are the same. In the United States, people come from all over the world, all races, all backgrounds. And they’re all doing what they want, many scoring huge successes. When I saw that, I became more open. It freed my soul.”
America also introduced him to computers.
When he came across a close-up photograph of a computer chip in a magazine, Son was so struck by the beauty of its dazzling rainbow colors he felt numb and cried. He slept with the photo under his pillow.
“He always thought big,” recalled former legislator Takeshi Iwaya, who has known Son since they were teenagers.
“He’s a pioneer. Even in a society strapped by rigid regulations, he has shown that with talent and hard work you can succeed.”
Of the tag “Japan’s Bill Gates,” Son said it’s an honor. But unlike Microsoft, he noted, Softbank deals in “infrastructure,” or support businesses for the digital age, not in manufacturing the actual software.
“We can have a partnership. And that’s good because it would be terrible to have to compete with Bill Gates,” Son said. “Except, in a game of golf, I can beat him.”