SoftBank founder's plan to stay on cheered; loss of heir apparent shrugged off

By Reuters
June 22,2016
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SoftBank Group Corp Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son attends a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, November 4, 2015. REUTERS/Toru Hanai/File Photo

By Makiko Yamazaki

TOKYO (Reuters) - SoftBank Group <9984.T> founder Masayoshi Son's surprise plan to remain firmly at the helm of the internet and telecoms giant for possibly 10 more years was warmly received on Wednesday, with investors unfazed by the loss of his high-profile heir apparent.

Son, 58, had planned to retire at 60 and last year named Nikesh Arora, a former Google executive as his successor. Arora announced late on Tuesday that he was resigning as president, just two years into his stint after Son made clear that he was unwilling to relinquish the reins in the near future.

Arora had earned praise for bold investments and his efforts to improve SoftBank's balance sheet with large asset sales. But his bumper pay, over $200 million in compensation in the last two years, had rankled with some investors who contrasted it with the firm's overall weaker performance.

The decision by Arora, who was in charge of the company's overseas investments, to move on, however, made it crucial that Son clarify the company's long-term plans, said analysts who also noted slow progress in turning around unit U.S. wireless carrier Sprint Corp <S.N>.

Son has in the past outlined a "SoftBank 2.0 strategy" to further expand in new business areas ranging from robotics and artificial intelligence to the "internet of things".

"With uncertainties now cast upon the investment business...and with the firm back to square one in identifying a successor, the biggest risk factor, we think Son needs to outline his medium- to long-term vision once again," said Mizuho Securities analyst Kei Takahashi.

For the immediate future, investors seemed happy to see that Son would be sticking around, with shares in the company climbing to end up 2.6 percent on Wednesday.

"The share rise today reflects investors' hopes that Mr Son will be in charge for much longer," said Shigeru Kanno, a pensioner and one of over 2,000 investors at a shareholder gathering where Son's decision was greeted with loud applause.

Son told shareholders he had too much energy to go soon.

"I just felt I wanted to continue on as CEO for longer," he said.

Compared with Son, known as a maverick in business but modest and soft-spoken in person, Arora, an Indian and one of few foreign-born executives in the top ranks of Japanese business, was seen as an outsider.

Tadashi Yanai, the head of Uniqlo operator Fast Retailing <9983.T> and a SoftBank board member, told shareholders that he had advised Son to stay on for longer.

"I told Mr. Son that there's no one like Mr. Son," he said.

Ken Miyauchi, head of the group's Japanese telecommunications operations, was named to replace Arora as SoftBank president while two other executives, Ron Fisher and Alok Sama, will take over management of the investment side of the business. Arora will continue to be an adviser to SoftBank.

It remains to be seen though if SoftBank's recent string of bold asset sales will continue.

These included the sale of $10 billion worth of shares in the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding <BABA.N> and the sale of its majority stake in 'Clash of Clans' maker Supercell to China's Tencent Holdings <0700.HK> for $7.3 billion.

(Reporting by Makiko Yamazaki and Hirotoshi Sugiyama; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)