SoftBank's Son to prioritize unicorn hunting as firm shifts focus

TOKYO (Reuters) - SoftBank Group Corp Chief Executive Masayoshi Son said on Wednesday he plans to devote the bulk of his time to hunt for technology investments around the world, as part of a major shift in focus at the Japanese tech and telecoms conglomerate.

FILE PHOTO: An employee works behind a logo of Softbank Corp at its branch in Tokyo March 2, 2011. REUTERS/Toru Hanai/File Photo

“I have spent 97 percent of my time on managing the telecoms business and only 3 percent on investing,” Son said. Reversing that balance will allow SoftBank to grow faster, he said.

The comments, made to investors at the group’s annual general meeting, came as shareholders approved the appointment of three executive vice-presidents - SoftBank unit Sprint Corp’s former chief executive, Marcelo Claure, and former bankers Katsunori Sago and Rajeev Misra.

Son’s comments fit with a transformation underway at SoftBank from a domestic telecoms firm to “unicorn hunter” - as Son termed it - focusing on late-stage startups around the world.

SoftBank and its investment vehicle Vision Fund, which raised over $93 billion last year, have stormed the world of dealmaking, buying up stakes in disruptive tech companies such as shared-office space firm WeWork and ride-hailing rivals Uber Technologies Inc, Didi Chuxing, Ola and Grab.

Bolivian-born billionaire Claure was appointed SoftBank’s chief operating officer in May, tasked with driving cooperation between the group’s portfolio companies. Former Goldman Sachs executive Sago became chief strategy officer on Wednesday and will focus on group investment. Misra runs the Vision Fund.

Son also bemoaned the so-called conglomerate discount weighing on SoftBank’s shares. He said when the market value of stakes the firm holds in companies such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and ARM Holdings are taken into account, SoftBank’s shares should be trading above 14,000 yen, rather than around 8,000 yen currently.

The perceived undervaluation has led the businessman to consider a management buyout in the past, Son said. The planned listing of SoftBank’s domestic telecoms unit should help clarify the value of the group’s component parts, he said.

There were few signs of shareholder scepticism at the meeting, with questions fielded by Son including a request to shake his hand and whether he had thought of becoming prime minister.

SoftBank’s shares have fallen around 7 percent this year. Thomson Reuters data showed 14 of 15 had “buy” or “strong buy” recommendations on the stock.

A note of caution came from outside director and chief executive of Uniqlo parent Fast Retailing Co Ltd Tadashi Yanai.

“I’m always watching with butterflies in my stomach,” he said, before urging shareholders to “not feel at ease”.

“Butterflies in the stomach are part of the joys of youth,” Son quipped back.

Reporting by Sam Nussey; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Christopher Cushing