The arrest of Takafumi Horie, 33, founder of high-flying Internet startup Livedoor Co., has shocked business leaders and prompted some soul-searching.

“There are rules and ethics that companies have to follow and should not breach,” Hiroshi Okuda, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), told reporters soon after Horie’s arrest late Monday.

“A young and challenging figure like Horie did not have to engage in (alleged illegal) acts,” Okuda said.

In Japan’s business world, management used to place priority on employees, and mergers and acquisitions for the sake of shareholders was once almost taboo.

But Horie’s aggressive M&A style, which has been intensely covered by the media, helped change the way people think, observers say, noting the technical terms of such business deals have become household vocabulary nationwide.

In its reported quest to become the world’s No. 1 firm in terms of market value, Livedoor bought out about 40 companies.

It tried to take control of Nippon Broadcasting System Inc., a radio broadcaster belonging to the Fujisankei Communications Group, last February.

“It was probably the first hostile takeover (attempt) of that size in Japan,” said Shinichi Ichikawa, a strategist at Credit Suisse First Boston Securities Ltd. in Tokyo. “It is true that the concept (of hostile takeovers) struck not only corporate managers but the public.”

The young Internet tycoon first grabbed attention when he tried to buy the Kintetsu Buffaloes baseball team in late June 2004.

The team flatly rejected the offer.

Livedoor then applied to start a new team but was again snubbed by the closed circle of big companies that run the league.

Massive media coverage of the failed bid, however, made him a young national hero who challenged the conservative old guard.

Horie’s vocal pledge to maximize stock prices also helped highlight the rights of shareholders, bringing about debate over the role of companies in a country that once had a history of life-time employment and strong employee loyalty to their companies.

“There is no doubt that companies exist for (the sake of) shareholders,” Ichikawa said. “Livedoor’s takeovers, however, not only underscored those interests but also those of customers and employees, as well as long-term corporate value.”

Horie’s aggressive efforts to push up stock prices also affected many people on the street, even kids.

Together with Waseda University and a nonprofit organization, Merrill Lynch Japan Securities started a three-day “summer camp” in August 2004 in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district to teach kids the finer points of finance, each time drawing seven or eight times more applicants than could be accommodated.

“Their interest in the ‘Roppongi Hills Tribe’ is one of the reasons why the camp has been so popular,” a Merrill Lynch spokesman said in reference to the circle of corporate executives centered on Livedoor, whose head office is in the Roppongi Hills commercial complex in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

Online brokerage Monex Inc. also held a one-day stock workshop for kids this month to address growing interest in a pursuit not covered in regular classes at schools. The forum was attended by several dozen children and their parents, out of several hundred who had applied.

But Livedoor’s aggressive style apparently had a dark side, prompting business leaders to raise questions of ethics after the arrest of Horie and other Livedoor executives.

“What Livedoor has been doing is extremely unique to that company. It was OK for them to act illegally if they were not found out,” said economist Takuro Morinaga, author of the best-seller “The Economics to Survive the Era of Annual Income of 3 Million yen.”

Shigeru Nakajima, an attorney specializing in M&As, said that ideally, companies take over other entities because of the synergic spinoffs of such integration, but Livedoor pursued takeovers without clear synergy.

“The relevancy and necessity of mutual business should come first in doing M&As,” he said.

Livedoor’s share price has been deemed overvalued by M&As and share splits. But other Internet rivals — including Net shopping mall operator Rakuten Inc. — pursued more moderate M&A strategies.

“Since our foundation (in 1996), we have aimed to augment our corporate value for the medium to long-term,” Masahiro Inoue, the president and chief executive officer of Yahoo Japan Corp., the nation’s largest Internet portal operator, said Monday. “We are not thinking about patching up the short-term value.”

Economist Morinaga said that although the Livedoor group’s share price will suffer, the overall stock market will be buoyed by robust corporate results to be reported in April and May.

Attorney Nakajima said: “The recent (Livedoor investigation and arrests) will force companies to focus again on their products and services. I believe it will turn out to be good (for corporate management).”

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