Business / Corporate

Uniqlo founder Tadashi Yanai, one of the few directors to stand up to Masayoshi Son, exits SoftBank board

Bloomberg

Fast Retailing Co. Chief Executive Officer Tadashi Yanai is leaving SoftBank Group Corp.’s board after more than 18 years as one of the few directors with the heft to challenge Masayoshi Son.

Yanai, Japan’s richest man, will step down on Tuesday, according to a SoftBank statement Friday. He is leaving the post to focus on running his own business, SoftBank spokeswoman Hiroe Kotera said. The founder of fashion chain Uniqlo has served as a SoftBank board member since June 2001.

With this departure, SoftBank investors lose one of the few board members capable of standing up to Son. The 70-year-old 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 in 1994, have often engaged in jocular sparring at SoftBank’s annual shareholder meetings.

At the June meeting this year, Son shared some predictions that were eye-popping even by the standards of the outspoken billionaire. The value of SoftBank’s investment portfolio could grow to be 33 times bigger than it is now to ¥200 trillion ($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.”

Son’s investment style came under fire this year after he boosted the equity in office-sharing startup WeWork only to see it 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 percent following its listing in May.

Still, SoftBank’s shares are set to end the year 30 percent higher and Son appears unfazed by the setbacks. The 62-year-old is in the process of raising another mega-fund — the Vision Fund 2.

“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.’s 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.

“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.”