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Son’s rags-to-riches career impresses by the numbers

by Atsushi Kodera

Staff Writer

Although he is still alive and well, Masayoshi Son has attained legendary status in Japan. From his childhood growing up in a poverty-stricken Korean community in Kyushu to his acquisition of No. 3 U.S. mobile carrier Sprint as chief executive of SoftBank, his life is full of colorful episodes and is still unfolding.

The businessman has projected a David and Goliath image that began when SoftBank Corp. made its foray into the broadband Internet market in 2001 with the Yahoo! BB service. Boasting an amazingly cheap monthly fee at the time of just ¥2,830, Son’s startup challenged rivals including giant Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. who were charging about ¥6,000 a month plus setup fees, which vaulted one’s initial broadband investment into the tens of thousands yen.

Since that time, Son has repeatedly challenged his larger rivals through acquisitions, including fixed-line phone operator Japan Telecom Co. in 2004 and Vodafone K.K., the local unit of Vodafone Group PLC, in 2006. Each conquest thrust SoftBank Corp. into a new business area, helping it boost market share, lower prices and establish the solid presence it enjoys today.

Behind SoftBank’s dramatic growth is the unusual tenacity of Son, whose tendency to set high goals and achieve them with unflinching determination is well documented in dozens of books.

Son was born in 1957 to Korean parents in a flood-prone area of Saga Prefecture, where poor Korean immigrants lived in a cluster of shacks, many by keeping pigs in the house and making bootleg alcohol, according to “Ampon,” a biography of Son by journalist Shinichi Sano.

In the book, interviews with Son’s relatives shed light on his upbringing. His cousin recounts how he often caught a preschool-age Son “studying like nobody’s business while he was soaked up to his knees in a shack full of floodwater smelling of feces.”

His early dwelling was miserable, and his Korean descent made him a target for discrimination, overshadowing his early years. But Son’s determination probably surfaced in his early teens, his biographers say.

Sano, for example, describes interesting episodes in which Son transferred, in the middle of his first semester in junior high school, to a more reputable school at his own wish and did all the paperwork himself. In another episode, a 15-year-old Son, now in high school, asked his third-year homeroom teacher from junior high to a restaurant and begged him to become the president of a cram school he planned to set up. The teacher turned him down.

The story behind SoftBank’s entry into broadband Internet is an archetypal example of Son, the tenacious entrepreneur.

Takenobu Miki, who joined SoftBank in 1998 and worked directly under Son as head of the president’s office, describes the foray as “the biggest challenge, the biggest crisis and the dramatic turnaround” of the company, which Miki left in 2006.

According to his book, “Kikaku-gai no Shigoto Jutsu” (“Nonstandard Work Techniques”), SoftBank in 2001 was facing a crisis after its share price plunged to just 1 percent of its high when the info-tech bubble collapsed. Son placed all of his bets on the new broadband business to keep the company alive.

Despite logistic issues associated with the need to rent NTT’s fiber-optic network, Son changed his plans for launching the service in Tokyo to a nationwide rollout on June 18 that year, the day before he was to announce the new venture.

By Sept. 4, SoftBank had an application backlog of over a million customers, with only about 40,000 able to use the service. This caused people to barrage the company with phone calls. But after overcoming this initial wave of problems, the company grew into a significant force in the Internet provider industry.

Miki, who now heads Japan Flagship Project Co., a startup consultancy, says the biggest thing he learned from Son is how to analyze every aspect of one’s work using numbers.

“I think the most amazing thing about Son and what led SoftBank to the success it enjoys today is the use of numbers in analyzing things,” Miki said. “For example, you have to have the estimate for which product sells well in what quantities in such and such location, or who is selling it. And if this estimate differs from the actual results, then there is something wrong with your estimate, and you have to determine what it is.”