Alibaba's Jack Ma bails from SoftBank's board

Japanese Uber-investor refreshing board as Ma heads off to do good works

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Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma will step down from the board of Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank after a 13-year stint.

Ma and SoftBank's founder, Masayoshi Son, have been close friends since SoftBank's bet on Alibaba in 2000. That investment was among SoftBank's most successful and the Japanese company still holds a 25 per cent stake worth around $136bn in the Chinese conglomerate.

Ma's exit is part of his plan to spend more time on philanthropic pursuits. It follows the departure of some of the board's most outspoken critics. Tadashi Yanai, founder and chief exec of Fast Retailing, the parent company of Uniqlo, resigned from the board in 2019 after 18 years' service, leaving only two non-executive directors.

The news of Ma's departure came as SoftBank prepared to report a $12.5bn annual operating loss - its biggest ever. The company, which has large investments in companies such as WeWork, Oyo Hotels, and Uber, has been badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Those results for the fiscal year ended 31 March, were out this morning (PDF). The firm reported an overall operating loss of ¥1.36 trillion in the 12 months and a net loss of ¥961.6bn. This was mostly down to its Vision Fund business alone reporting a ¥1.9 trillion (£14.6bn, $17.7bn) operating loss for the year. Net sales were ¥6.1851 trillion (£47.542bn), up just 1.5 per cent from 2019's ¥6.0935 trillion (£46.834bn).

In addition to Yanai's departure, power struggles inside SoftBank's $100bn Vision Fund last year led to the departure of Mark Schawrtz, the company's longstanding independent director. Shigenobu Nagamori, the founder of motor maker Nidec, also stepped down in 2017.

SoftBank said it will expand its board to 13 members and has proposed three new appointees to be voted on during the company's annual shareholder meeting scheduled for June 25.

The new list includes the group's CFO, Yoshimoto Goto; as well as two independent options: Lip-Bu Tan, chief exec of chip design firm Cadence Design Systems and chairman of venture capital firm Walden International; and Yuko Kawamoto, a professor at Waseda University who specialises in corporate governance.

The election of the two independent candidates meets the demands of Elliott Management, an American activist hedge fund that took a 3 per cent stake worth $2.5bn in the Japanese firm in February. The fund has urged SoftBank to improve board diversity and form a subcommittee to oversee the investment process of its Vision Fund.

Alongside Ma's departure, SoftBank also announced that it would buy back ¥500bn ($4.6bn) of scrip as part of a ¥4.5 trillion ($41.9bn) asset sale program aimed at bolstering its stock price after high-profile startups it had backed lost value. The latest buyback announcement doubles its previous buyback commitment, announced in March. ®

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