Who wants to be a billionaire? SoftBank academy vets Japan entrepreneurs

Sun Aug 3, 2014 5:09pm EDT
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By Teppei Kasai

TOKYO (Reuters) - If Masayoshi Son, the billionaire founder and CEO of SoftBank Corp needs a fresh strategy to fend off a surprise French counterbid for a prized U.S. telecoms target, he could do worse than ask budding entrepreneurs at the SoftBank Academia.

Here, some 300 or so aspiring leaders - split about evenly between company insiders and entrepreneurs from outside - brainstorm ideas and vie to catch Son's eye, with a chance he'll offer them a job or invest in their company, or even choose them as his "heir" to run Japan's second most valuable listed company.

The Academia, set up by Son four years ago, meets once or twice a month in the 25th floor cafeteria of SoftBank's Tokyo headquarters. In what sounds like an episode from business-reality TV show "The Apprentice", the budding leaders play business-themed board games and compete with 5-minute business proposals that are judged by their peers. The winners get to meet Son; the losers hear, "You're fired!"

The Academia is ostensibly seeking someone to carry on the business from Son, Japan's best known entrepreneur who built a small software distributor into a near-$90 billion internet media empire. Son, 56, has said he wants to retire in his 60s.

But the program is also helping SoftBank scout and train talent to run its hundreds of ventures, in fields from internet services to robotics and renewable energy, in a country where MBA-type business schools and venture capital firms are rare.

"People say Son's thinking is: you guys may not be able to be my actual successor, but you definitely have what it takes to become head of a subsidiary," said one participant, who asked not to be named. The contents of the program are not made public and participants are explicitly told not to discuss the sessions with people outside the program.

SoftBank, Japan's third-largest mobile operator, is an aggressive acquirer that last year bought No.3 U.S. wireless company Sprint Corp, and is in talks to buy fourth-ranked T-Mobile US Inc. It is also a significant shareholder in Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, and has stakes in mobile game companies Supercell and Gungho Online Entertainment Inc. It plans to amass 5,000 companies within its empire by 2040, up from nearly 900 now.

Son, who now faces a counterbid for T-Mobile US from French firm Iliad SA, has acknowledged that the lack of a successor poses one of the leading risks to SoftBank's future.   Continued...

A man walks past the logo of SoftBank Corp in Tokyo, in this June 11, 2013 file photo.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai/Files