SoftBank’s Son turns to female gaming pioneer to shake up board 

SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son turned to a friend of four decades in April after he was presented with a list of 30 candidates to become the Japanese technology group’s new female board member.

Keiko Erikawa, chair of Koei Tecmo Holdings, was exactly the type of female entrepreneur the billionaire founder was seeking. She brings a management style that differed starkly from Son’s high-risk approach, which has taken SoftBank from a historic loss last year to the highest ever profit for a Japanese company.

The $7.5bn gaming company Erikawa co-founded with her husband, which is known for hits such as Nobunaga’s Ambition and Uncharted Waters, has never made an employee redundant or made a loss in its 43 years. It emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic with a capital adequacy ratio of 86 per cent, underlining the strength of its balance sheet. 

“At first, I told him our company was also looking for female management and that I didn’t have time,” Erikawa told the Financial Times in an interview, recalling a conversation she had with Son in the spring. “But I thought it might be fun and accepted, considering that I have known him for a long time and we have dealt with various business matters from time to time so I know his personality very well.”

Erikawa is expected to be appointed non-executive director at SoftBank this month pending shareholder approval. Her nomination comes after Yuko Kawamoto, a prominent corporate governance expert who was the group’s first and only female director, stepped down last month after openly challenging Son on issues of internal control. 

Erikawa, a 72-year-old games designer, is also known for managing Koei Tecmo’s $1bn in surplus funds and other assets, and has been investing in stocks since she was 18. 

“I have always continued investment in a tough environment, including investments in start-ups. So I hope to be somewhat useful as a SoftBank board member in that aspect as well,” she said. 

Erikawa has known Son since he set up SoftBank in 1981 as a distributor of PC software and watched the company evolve into Japan’s third-largest mobile carrier and the investment group behind the Saudi-backed $100bn Vision Fund. “Considering his personality, he won’t be satisfied until [SoftBank becomes] the world’s number one as an investment company,” she said.

While Kawamoto had been critical of SoftBank’s governance structure, Erikawa said she was not too concerned about volatility in the group’s financial performance. 

“Mr Son was very depressed after a big loss last year, so I said, ‘What are you talking about? Investment always comes with a risk’,” Erikawa noted, referring to SoftBank’s soured bets such as property group WeWork. “Humans improve through challenges and failures so I’m hopeful that he will be able to generate good results in the future.”

One challenge for Koei Tecmo has been the cultivation of female talent.

“Including myself, many Japanese women do not want to be in the top management. Even if they have the same responsibilities, they find it psychologically easier to be in the number two position than standing in the front,” Erikawa said. “There are so many talented women in Japan so I strongly feel the need to change this structure.”

Hirokazu Hamamura, a gaming expert and digital contents adviser at publishing company Kadokawa, said Erikawa could become a voice on SoftBank’s board who could counter Son’s influence.

“Ms Erikawa is a role model for other female managers and one of the pioneers of the gaming industry. She will also not hesitate to speak her mind to anyone, but she can do it without offending people because of her personality,” Hamamura said.

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