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SoftBank loses one of the few board members who could challenge Masayoshi Son

Uniqlo founder Tadashi Yanai
Uniqlo founder Tadashi Yanai often engaged in jocular sparring with SoftBank’s chief.
(Sajjad Hussain / AFP via Getty Images)

Tadashi Yanai, Japan’s richest man, is leaving SoftBank Group Corp.’s board after more than 18 years as one of the few directors with the heft to challenge Chief Executive and Chairman Masayoshi Son.

Yanai, who founded fashion chain Uniqlo and is CEO of Fast Retailing Co., will step down from SoftBank’s board Tuesday, according to SoftBank. He is leaving the post to focus on running his own business, SoftBank spokeswoman Hiroe Kotera said. He has served as a SoftBank board member since June 2001.

With this departure, SoftBank investors are losing one of the few board members capable of standing up to Son. The 70-year-old Yanai has been reported as a rare voice of dissent when it came to Son’s ambitious and risky acquisitions. The two men, whose respective companies both went public in the same month of 1994, have often engaged in jocular sparring at SoftBank annual shareholder meetings.

At a meeting in June, Son shared some predictions that were eye-popping even by the standards of the outspoken Japanese billionaire. The value of SoftBank’s investment portfolio could grow 33-fold to $1.8 trillion in 20 years, he said. The remarks drew laughs from directors while Yanai feigned outrage, urging shareholders to look out for Son “or he will go out of control.”

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Son’s investment style came under fire this year after he boosted the equity in office-sharing start-up WeWork only to see WeWork’s value plummet as investors balked at enormous losses and troublesome governance. The Vision Fund has also had to write down the value of its ride-hailing portfolio after Uber Technologies Inc. fell more than 30% following its initial public offering May.

Still, SoftBank’s shares are set to end the year with a 30% gain, and Son appears unfazed by the setbacks. The 62-year-old is raising another mega-fund — the Vision Fund 2.

One year ago, the global business elite deserted a Saudi Arabian investment summit in droves after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

“Independent board members are not going to change this company,” said Mitsushige Akino, an executive officer at Ichiyoshi Asset Management Co. in Tokyo. “SoftBank has always been and will remain Son’s company.”

Yanai’s exit leaves SoftBank’s board with only a handful of truly independent outside directors: Mitsui & Co. Chairman Masami Iijima and University of Tokyo professor Yutaka Matsuo, who joined in June. Jack Ma is a director; however, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. counts SoftBank as its biggest shareholder. Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan, another board member, heads Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which is the biggest contributor to Son’s $100-billion Vision Fund.

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“I always oppose Son in everything he does,” Yanai said at the June gathering. “Dreams are all good, but nothing beats realistic management. Let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”


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