Masayoshi Son charts a fast track to the future – with Middle Eastern backers

The man behind SoftBank is raising US$100bn from global backers including in Abu Dhabi as he sets his sights on becoming the world’s biggest technology player.

Masayoshi Son, the chairman and chief executive of SoftBank Group, says he has a 300-year plan for his company that includes making it the world’s most valuable firm. Kiyoshi Ota / Bloomberg
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When Masayoshi Son was a boy growing up on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, he kept a notebook to scribble down new inventions he hoped to create one day.

Today, the SoftBank founder has almost US$100 billion to invest on making the next big thing a reality.

Mr Son’s SoftBank Group has just closed the first round of a planned $100bn investment fund, with money raised from Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Company, as well as Apple and Qualcomm.

The Softbank Vision Fund gives the 59-year-old access to a pool of capital unparalleled in the worlds of private equity or venture capital.

Mr Son is not one for understatement. He has said, without irony, that he has a 300-year plan for SoftBank and aims to build the world’s most valuable company. With the Vision Fund, Mr Son vows to become the biggest investor in tech over the next decade, as he bets on the future of artificial intelligence, connected devices, satellites and the integration of computers and humans. Indeed in April, he led the $5.5bn investment in China’s Didi Chuxing, the largest venture funding on record.

“We saw a big bang in PCs, we saw a big bang in the internet,” Mr Son said in February. “I believe the next big bang is going to be even bigger. To be ready for that, we need to set the foundation and that foundation is SoftBank Vision Fund.”

Mr Son has some enthusiastic supporters. The Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman agreed to make his country the cornerstone investor with a $45bn cheque after meeting Mr Son.

Mubadala, meanwhile, made a $15bn commitment to the fund. “Our participation in the SoftBank Vision Fund perfectly complements Mubadala’s strategy as a long-term global investor and partner to the technology sector’s high-growth companies,” Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the chief executive of Mubadala, said in a statement on Saturday. “Technology and innovation are central to the UAE’s economic diversification strategy, and we believe the Vision Fund has the scale to deploy significant capital into these disruptive industries that are shaping the future.”

Besides Apple and Qualcomm, Foxconn Technology and Sharp are also putting in capital. SoftBank said in the same statement on Saturday the fund has $93bn in committed capital and aims to reach $100bn with a final close within six months.

Mr Son’s mega-fund will unleash an unprecedented amount of money into sectors already seen as overcapitalised. Private equity returns have plummeted in recent years because there is too much money chasing too few deals. Venture capital faces similar issues.

“A $100bn fund is mind boggling,” says Steven Kaplan, a professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business who co-founded its entrepreneurship programme. “There’s too much capital now so bringing in more capital doesn’t make any sense.”

Mr Kaplan struggles to think of a precedent for what Mr Son is attempting. He says the closest parallel may be the late 1990s when money poured into US internet companies, fuelling sky-high valuations – right until the market crashed.

Private equity firms are sitting on record piles of cash. The amount of unspent money hit $820bn at the end of 2016, up from $755bn a year earlier, according to the research firm Preqin. The venture total hit $142bn, compared with $127bn at the end of 2015.

“There is already a tremendous amount of dry powder out there,” says Felice Egidio, Preqin’s head of venture capital products. “Investment opportunities are getting harder and harder to come by.”

In other words, Mr Son may be more than the most powerful investor in tech – he may be the most dangerous, too. A flood of capital into AI or driverless cars, can inflate valuations and spawn too many competitors, leaving everyone struggling to make money.

Mr Son has spent his life defying expectations. He left Japan at 16 to study in the United States. While in school, he invented an electronic translator that he sold to Sharp, making his first $1 million.

“It’s like he’s from the future,” says Hong Lu, who began working with Mr Son in California 40 years ago and went on to co-found UTStarcom Holdings.

Mr Son founded his own company in 1981 and began to distribute software for companies such as Microsoft. He then built it through a series of high-stakes bets. In a deal that would supply him with cash for other investments, he acquired Vodafone’s struggling Japan business and turned it into a profit machine.

His fearlessness almost cost him his company. During the internet bubble, he invested in about 800 companies, vowing to create a “netbatsu”, the digital age equivalent of Japan’s zaibatsu industrial conglomerates bound by cross-share ownership. SoftBank shares surged and Mr Son’s net worth hit $68bn in 2000, almost surpassing Microsoft’s Bill Gates as the world’s richest man. Then the bubble burst and hundreds of his investments went under. His stock fell 99 per cent.

But among the wreckage, Mr Son had some winners. He was an early backer of Yahoo and he bet on China’s Alibaba Group, which turned into one of the best venture bets of all time. He parlayed an initial $20m investment into a stake that is now valued at more than $90bn, or 4,500 times his original investment.

If Mr Son was unnerved by the crash, he never let it show. He continued to cut big deals, including the $22bn acquisition of the US wireless carrier Sprint. Last year, he made the biggest deal of his career, buying the chip designer ARM for $32bn.

After the announcement, his stock got hammered as stunned investors fled. “It would be unfair to Masa Son if we said we were not warned that some ‘crazy ideas’ were on anvil,” Atul Goyal, an analyst at Jefferies Group, wrote at the time. “To us, the ARM acquisition ... appears largely inconsistent with SoftBank’s investment strategy … It does not inspire much confidence.”

Mr Son was unfazed. “People think this was a stupid move, they’ve voted with their money,” he said at the time. “It’s easy to look at where your pieces are now and place the next one nearby. This one is 10, 20, 50 moves ahead.”

That set the stage for the Vision Fund. Mr Son saw once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, while SoftBank’s investors fretted the risks. The question was where he could find a new set of backers willing to finance his vision of the future.

Then the Saudi deputy crown prince went to Tokyo last September just as he was looking for ways to diversify the economy beyond oil and invest billions of petro-dollars in new industries under the kingdom’s Vision 2030.

SoftBank’s Vision Fund was announced publicly in October and Mr Son’s deal-making synapses have been firing even before the fund closed. He agreed to invest $1bn in OneWeb, a start-up that aims to beam internet connectivity to every corner of the globe. He is also putting $300m into WeWork, a New York-based start-up that rents out offices to small businesses and freelancers.

Mr Son is raising the Vision Fund as he sees deals he thinks are even more promising than Alibaba. In February, he cited the leaders of the sharing economy, including Uber Technologies and Airbnb.

SoftBank is behind major funding for rivals to Uber. Didi, the biggest ride-hailing service in China, last month announced its record $5.5bn fundraising, led by the Japanese company. The South East Asian operator Grab plans to raise more than $1.5bn in a round backed by the Japanese company, insiders have said.

“Uber is redefining the transportation industry now; Airbnb is doing it to the hotel industry. You can expect that to happen in every single industry,” Mr Son said. He has given a few details of how he plans to use the capital. It is likely to be a mixture of many investments on the scale of OneWeb with a handful of very large deals. “This won’t be a typical fund,” he said. “Most of our investments will range between 20 and 40 per cent, making us the largest shareholder and board member, in a position to discuss strategy with the founders.”

The Vision Fund will be based in West London’s Mayfair and advised by SoftBank subsidiaries collectively called SB Investment Advisers. Rajeev Misra, SoftBank’s head of strategic finance, will be the chief executive of SB Investment Advisers and a member of the fund’s investment committee.

Mr Son will have unusual influence. He will be the only so-called key man in the fund, according to a person familiar with the matter. There are typically several people with such a designation in investment funds, which gives limited partners the option to withdraw from the fund if one of those key men leave.

Deal makers are cautious. Ted Gooden, the managing director at Berkshire Capital, predicts returns are likely to decline given the excess of capital. “There is so much money in the system, it changes the industry,” he says.

Not everyone outside of Mr Son’s orbit is a sceptic, though. David Brophy, a finance professor at the University of Michigan, says the sheer size of SoftBank’s fund will give Mr Son advantages no other investor has. He can jump into deals that are more capital intensive than anyone else can handle and he can keep funding them longer. “You can walk in with muscle that no one else has,” says Mr Brophy.

“I wouldn’t focus too much on what we see in the rear view mirror. It’s more important to look ahead.”

* Bloomberg

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