Nobody's native Son
By Tim Clark
Staff Writer, CNET NEWS.COM
Masayoshi Son doesn't look like a multibillionaire.
He is soft-spoken, a casual dresser, and he wouldn't be picked out of a crowd as a man who has spent $4.6 billion on a high-tech buying binge in the last 24 months. That's just on the big-ticket items: computer publisher Ziff-Davis, 80 percent of PC memory maker Kingston Technologies, and the Ziff and Comdex trade show groups. Add to that at least $200 million invested in 30-plus Internet start-ups to date, going to 50 by the end of this year.
Son-san, as associates call him, has a self-effacing manner that belies a
toughness developed as a son of Korean parents growing up in Japan, where
racial prejudice against Koreans is still widespread.
Son is no typical Japanese. Where Japan's business culture is bureaucratic and hierarchical, Son is an entrepreneur who runs a lean staff, a dealmaker who makes a $100 million investment over pizza with Internet twenty-somethings who have more passion than
business experience. The billions he has poured into U.S. technology firms, all companies he sees as providing infrastructure for the digital information industry, have been channeled through a handful of U.S.-based advisers.
For all that activity, Son remains a shadowy figure to many. He went to high school in South San Francisco then attended the University of California at Berkeley, where he made his first million while in his twenties. Back in Japan, he founded Softbank at age 23 and built it into the nation's largest distributor of computer software, controlling some 50 percent of the market. Softbank, publicly traded in Tokyo, is the foundation for his high-tech and highly leveraged buying spree.
He knows the big players, having a major role in getting Cisco Systems a foothold in the Japanese market, serving as Microsoft's chief distributor in Japan, and owning 20 percent of Novell's Japanese subsidiary. Just last month he became the first outside investor in Asymetrix, fellow billionaire Paul Allen's first start-up post-Microsoft, now more than a decade ago.
Word inside Son's U.S. acquisitions is that he's an easy taskmaster, at least for the first year. Since most of his purchases are less than a year old, what happens after the honeymoon isn't clear, but the debt he's assumed to make those acquisitions will force him to squeeze profits out of mature properties.
NEWS.COM caught up to Son last month in Atlanta at the Networld+Interop networking trade show he owns through Softbank Expos.
NEWS.COM: You made your first million in your twenties. What do you gain or prove by continuing?
Masayoshi Son: I want to continue to grow a business. Softbank's mission is to become a very important company by providing infrastructure for the digital information industry.
Notice I did not say the PC or software industry. In the years to come, the digital information industry will evolve. The PC industry is a subset of that. We provide all kinds of infrastructure for the information industry: magazines, distribution, services, trade shows, media, and so forth.
NEXT: What drives him