Masayoshi Son isn’t letting go of the reins at SoftBank Group Corp. anytime soon, even as the founder tells shareholders he’s taking the issue of his succession seriously.
Son, who has often indicated he plans to find his replacement in his 60s, may stay on as the chairman into his 70s, the billionaire told shareholders during their annual meeting Wednesday. Son may relinquish the chief executive officer title and hopes to have an idea of who his successor will be at around 69. For now, the 63-year-old CEO, unusually wearing reading glasses during his presentation, said he feels energized "thanks to advanced medical technology.”
Coming up with a plan for who will succeed Son is SoftBank’s biggest challenge, according to Yuko Kawamoto, who just stepped down as director after one year on the job. She had been the first female board member for the conglomerate and shareholders approved the appointment of another, Koei Tecmo Holdings Co. Chairman Keiko Erikawa, at the meeting.
Investors also asked about plans for more share repurchases and the possibility of taking the company private through a slow-motion management buyout.
Son declined to comment on the prospects of a buyout. SoftBank has discussed the idea of such a buyout, Bloomberg News reported in December. If put into action, the plan would have the company buy back and cancel its own shares and thereby push up the percentage that Son himself owns.
"Many things are possible, but it’s hard to comment on it. I shouldn’t comment on it. No comment,” Son said.
SoftBank in May reported the largest quarterly net income ever for a Japanese company, propelled by e-commerce giant Coupang Inc.’s $4.6 billion initial public offering. Yet SoftBank’s shares have languished in the absence of another share buyback program as the firm has maintained in years past, and Son has argued investors aren’t giving him credit for the value he’s creating. The founder believes SoftBank Group shares are roughly 50% undervalued at present.
SoftBank’s stock is down almost 30% from its two-decade high in March. The steepest slide came in early May when SoftBank completed its unprecedented ¥2.5 trillion ($23 billion) share buyback without announcing a new repurchase program.
"With management, we always discuss buybacks as an important agenda item,” Son said. He added that it may come today, in three months or three years, but the decision "does require balanced thinking about a variety of aspects. Our financial status, our investment opportunity, how many targets are out there, of course we also need to consider the return to shareholders.”
While last year’s profits are largely paper gains on investments, Son has plenty of cash to keep buying back stock. The Japanese conglomerate had ¥6.75 trillion in cash and equivalents as of March 31, of which about ¥2 trillion are in short-term investments.
Son also said the company may consider a share split to make the stock more accessible to a broader range of investors. The shares closed little changed at ¥7,688 in Tokyo on Wednesday.
Son has tried to keep the attention on his startup successes. SoftBank’s Vision Fund investment arm has gone from being the source of the biggest loss in SoftBank’s history a year ago to the main driver of earnings, with a ¥2.3 trillion profit in the March quarter.
Coupang, the South Korean e-commerce leader, contributed $24.5 billion to the Vision Fund profit in the fourth quarter. Auto1 Group SE, a German wholesale platform for used cars that went public in February, contributed $1.8 billion of the gains while Uber posted a $200 million loss. The Japanese conglomerate doesn’t have to sell equity holdings to book income, so most of its profits are unrealized.
SoftBank doubled its commitment to Vision Fund 2, where the company is a sole investor, to $40 billion since the end of March, according to a separate financial filing on Wednesday. Son has previously said he had given up seeking outside capital for the fund after earlier attempts in the wake of the WeWork disaster proved unsuccessful.
Son admitted that he needs to work harder to educate investors and win their confidence given SoftBank’s transformation in the past few years away from running technology businesses to an investment-holdings model. He said the best way to think of his sprawling conglomerate is as "a capital provider for the Information Revolution.”
"Investors make money. Capital providers make the future,” he said. "Venture capital seems too small for SoftBank. Vision capital is more like it.”
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