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SoftBank's Masayoshi Son, the 'crazy guy who bet on the future'

US President-elect Trump with SoftBank founder and chief executive Son in the lobby of Trump Tower last Tuesday. Mr Son pledged to create 50,000 jobs and invest US$50 billion in US start-ups, and has a 300-year plan for his US$68 billion tech giant.
US President-elect Trump with SoftBank founder and chief executive Son in the lobby of Trump Tower last Tuesday. Mr Son pledged to create 50,000 jobs and invest US$50 billion in US start-ups, and has a 300-year plan for his US$68 billion tech giant.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The man who wants to be the tech industry's Warren Buffett had very humble beginnings

Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son was born into poverty, but struck his first deal at 21 on his way to founding and leading one of the country's tech giants, SoftBank.

Now 59, the telecoms mogul is noted for going against the archetype of Japanese business leaders, with his audacity and showmanship in pushing for his Silicon Valley-esque vision of the future.

His penchant for making waves was no more evident than during his meeting with United States President-elect Donald Trump last week.

He pledged to create 50,000 jobs and invest US$50 billion (S$71.5 billion) in US start-ups, with the money to come from a "SoftBank Vision Fund" launched in partnership with a Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund.

Mr Trump, in turn, called him by his nickname "Masa" and said he was "one of the great men of industry" in a sign of their camaraderie.

The meeting drove SoftBank's share prices up 6.1 per cent, adding US$2 billion to Mr Son's coffers as he became Japan's richest man, according to Forbes.

IN FOR THE LONG HAUL

I haven't invented anything earth- shattering. If I could be said to have one noteworthy ability compared with the average person, it's that I have a keen interest in reading the direction and timing of paradigm shifts.

I don't care about the sort of things that will bring in chump change over the next two or three years. I think I'm better than others at sniffing out things that will bear fruit in 10 or 20 years while they're still at the seed stage, and I'm more willing to take the risks that entails.

SOFTBANK FOUNDER MASAYOSHI SON

That was not the first time Mr Son has made headlines this year.

Just weeks after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Mr Son bought UK-based ARM Holdings - a global leader in smartphone chips - for £24.3 billion (S$43.7 billion) in what was the largest Japanese acquisition of a foreign company. He has vowed to double its 1,600 strong British workforce in five years.

Details are scant as to how hiring more people will fit into his grand vision of a future of "Singularity" - one where artificial intelligence will supplant human beings - that he spelt out in an earnings call last month.

But to get there, he has come up with a 300-year plan for his US$68 billion conglomerate and dived into deals with a reported 1,300 companies around the world.

These include Singapore ride-hailing service Grab, Chinese e-commerce firm Alibaba Holdings, Yahoo Japan, US telecoms giant Sprint, as well as media outlet BuzzFeed.

Mr Son, who harbours aspirations of becoming the tech industry's Warren Buffett, might not yet be a household name around the world, but his name opens doors.

Earlier this month, he met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi over a US$10 billion investment in the country's technology sector that was pledged in 2014. Some US$2 billion of the sum has been invested.

Mr Son, who believes the future lies in renewable energy, also has his eye on India's vast resources. He is reportedly dismayed by Japan's reluctance to give up on nuclear energy even though the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami sparked the Fukushima nuclear disaster, one of the worst in history.

Mr Son also met South Korean President Park Geun Hye in September, pledging a five trillion won (S$6.1 billion) investment in the country's technology sector over 10 years.

Executive editor William Pesek, of financial magazine Barron's Asia, wrote in a recent column: "Mr Son has tried to relocate Japan's animal spirits. SoftBank worked to reclaim the mantle of innovation and risk-taking that... (are) powerful antidotes to the Japan Inc groupthink that trumps audacity."

But Mr Son had very humble beginnings. Born in Kyushu to an immigrant family from South Korea, his father eked out a living by being a small-time farmer and restaurateur. He was bullied in school for his heritage, though this was said to have hardened his resolve.

With his gumption as a teenager, he managed to arrange a meeting with his idol, McDonald's Japan founder Den Fujita, who advised him to learn English and study in the United States.

His family managed to save enough to send him abroad, and he graduated with a degree in economics in 1980 from the University of California, Berkeley.

A year before that, he sold a pocket translator that he invented to Japanese tech firm Sharp for US$423,000, which is at least US$1 million in today's terms.

He met his wife, Masami Ohno, while in university. They have two daughters.

Mr Son returned to Japan and started SoftBank in 1981. The company went public 13 years later, and now has more than 60,000 employees across its diversified portfolio.

The investments that Mr Son is feted for also come with big risks - and he holds the ignominy of suffering the largest financial loss by any one person. He lost US$70 billion during the dotcom crash of 2000.

Even then, he was unfazed. Years later, he struck one of his most notable deals with the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, to whom he had shown a hand-drawn sketch of the "ultimate mobile machine" before the iPhone hit the market.

This exchange, he told Nikkei Asian Review in an interview this year, led to SoftBank's initial exclusive rights to bring the iPhone into Japan.

Mr Son envisions a world of artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, prompting his 2012 acquisition of French company Aldebaran Robotics for its expertise in humanoid robot technology. Now, SoftBank's Pepper robot, which can detect human emotions, has been used in Japanese hospitals and retirement homes, as well as in retail outlets.

With ARM's expertise in designing microchips, he wants to forge a world where, for instance, street lamps can "talk to" cars and switch off to save power when there are no cars around.

He told Nikkei: "I haven't invented anything earth-shattering. If I could be said to have one noteworthy ability compared with the average person, it's that I have a keen interest in reading the direction and timing of paradigm shifts.

"I think I'm better than others at sniffing out things that will bear fruit in 10 or 20 years while they're still at the seed stage, and I'm more willing to take the risks that entails."

And the legacy he wants to leave behind, is to be "a crazy guy who bet on the future".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2016, with the headline 'SoftBank's Masayoshi Son, the 'crazy guy who bet on the future''. Print Edition | Subscribe