SoftBank goes against Korean norms with new president

UNUSUAL CHOICE: SoftBank chief executive Son in front of a screen showing his possible successor, former Google chief business officer Arora, in Tokyo on Monday. Koreans would say he chose a "nam", or stranger, to run his company.
SoftBank goes against Korean norms with new president

BORN INTO THE JOB: Then there are some literally conceived to become a successor, like North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (in dark grey).


    May 15, 2015

    SoftBank goes against Korean norms with new president

    FROM the day we are born, we are somewhat given the task of perpetuating the human race.

    This task is not limited to humans, but to every entity that has a place in society, including companies. In order for the economy to keep rolling, all corporations need successors to carry on the business.

    Recently, Masayoshi Son - also known by his Korean name, Son Jeong Ui - picked such a person to run his multi-billion-dollar enterprise.

    Mr Son has frequently made headlines with his unconventional business decisions. But his latest decision to select a former Google executive to be SoftBank's president next month and his potential successor as chief executive came as a surprise to some, especially to many Koreans who are used to seeing companies get handed down to family members.

    Mr Son not only has kids, but also a brother who happens to be in the information-technology business and currently heads a couple of enterprises including GungHo, a mobile-gaming company.

    Instead, Mr Son set his sights on Nikesh Arora, formerly the chief business officer of Google.

    The Japanese billionaire said he sees Mr Arora as the man who can navigate the tougher times that may lie ahead for SoftBank. The company recently said it posted a record net profit for the fifth consecutive year, but also declined to forecast any future earnings.


    So I asked myself: How many companies in South Korea would do what Mr Son had done? He has just chosen an unrelated man to head a company he built from scratch. Koreans would say he chose a "nam", which means stranger in Korean.

    I do not know if Lee Jay Yong, the only son of Samsung chairman Lee Kun Hee, is qualified to inherit the Samsung empire. But is there a chance that the elder Lee would have considered someone else even if he felt his son did not measure up?

    The importance of a successor is… well, I doubt we even need to go into it, but a few powerful and sometimes controversial ones come to mind.

    Steve Ballmer, Jeffrey Immelt and Carly Fiorina are just some of the best-known examples.

    Then again, there are some actually born into their jobs, literally conceived to become a successor, like North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

    I admit that this young man faced challenges from the get-go, having inherited one of the most reclusive nations in the world that seems to be slowly disintegrating. But one does imagine how drastically different things would be for the Korean Peninsula if one of the most controversial successors in the world had just a little more sense.

    Going back to South Korea, it is not rare to see companies - big and small - bequeathing their businesses to kin or next of kin.

    Perhaps it is a cultural thing. Family, or people who can be considered family, is one of the most important aspects of Korean life. But strictly speaking, it is less because of who they are, and more about putting them down as blood allies in life.


    As far as I can tell, this does not seem to be the case for Japan.

    Yes, businesses will be handed down to second and third generations. But the way people generally treat each other in Tokyo, to me, shows more respect towards those who they are not related to - the perfect "nam".

    Not only are they polite, but they also genuinely seem to be very concerned about not causing any inconvenience to anyone other than themselves, even to people they would probably never lay their eyes on again.

    This is a big difference from the society I was used to in South Korea.

    I remember once, when I was moonlighting for an English broadcaster there and had to invite a researcher from a think-tank for an interview.

    It was a scorching hot summer day in June, and he got lost. But I could not go out to greet him because I was busy. Another staff member greeted him at the entrance, but he got so upset at not having been escorted that he left without doing the interview.

    I talked to my father about it, and - surprise, surprise - he knew this man. One thing led to another and I called him up and apologised, and he was suddenly very understanding about the whole episode.

    It was perplexing how actions he had criticised just days ago could be so easily forgiven, after it turned out I was associated with someone he knew.

    But that is the way things get done in South Korea. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Your friend is mine, are we but "nam"? These are all slogans that have actually been publicly used by politicians.

    This is why it may be difficult to understand how a man could build an enterprise, only to give it to someone with whom he has no blood relation.

    But as that someone in this case has wowed the world over and over again with his brilliant entrepreneurship, I am willing to bet Mr Son is shrewd enough to know what he is doing.

    Many eyes - including those of some of the conglomerates' staff there - will be watching to see if the carefully chosen successor can live up to expectations or if, in the end, family ties are the only answer.