SoftBank's former President and COO Nikesh Arora (left) and Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son.
Photograph by Shingo Ito — AFLO
By Erin Griffith
April 23, 2016

A group of SoftBank shareholders, led by a Swiss consultant named Nicolas Giannakopoulos, has called for an internal investigation of company president Nikesh Arora, according to Bloomberg.

A “sharply critical” letter sent by the shareholders to SoftBank in January accuses Arora, the Japanese telecom giant’s second-in-command, of making bad deals, earning too much money, and having conflicts of interest. But absent of some misconduct that the shareholders have not yet revealed, it appears to be a flimsy set of allegations. (Via email, Giannakopoulos directed me to an associate who did not respond to request for comment.)

Regarding the bad deals, Arora’s mandate was initially to make investments in media and entertainment companies. One of those deals, DramaFever, didn’t pan out, and SoftBank has since sold it. When Arora was promoted to president, he began investing in mature tech startups, mostly in emerging markets. One of those deals, Housing.com, has been a failure. It’s too soon to tell how well SoftBank will fare on the rest of Arora’s deals, which include highly valued startups such as SoFi, Ola Cabs, SnapDeal, and Oyo Rooms. Venture capital investments, even at the late stage in which SoftBank is investing, can take years to pay off.

But the biggest reason the “bad deal” argument is flimsy is because SoftBank’s founder and CEO Masayoshi Son is himself an erratic dealmaker. He is known for taking big, bold risks, which sometimes create big rewards, as with SoftBank’s investment in the Japanese arm of Vodafone, and which sometimes nearly tank the company, as happened during the tech bubble crash of 2001.

Regarding the excessive pay, Arora does not come cheap. To align his interests with SoftBank’s, last year he took on personal debt to buy $483 million worth of SoftBank stock. He can also take some credit for SoftBank’s 500 billion yen share buyback, which has helped boost the company’s slumping share price this year.

Lastly, Giannakopoulos’ group has accused Arora of a potential conflict of interest with private equity firm Silver Lake. Silicon Valley is so clubby and interconnected that every power player seems to have ten different conflicts so, when conflicts arise, the Conflicted Ones recuse themselves from negotiations. Regardless of whether a conflict exists, the mere appearance of one can lead to problems. Activist investor Carl Icahn used that argument against Marc Andreessen to split up eBay (EBAY) and PayPal (PYPL).

Arora has defended his advisory role at Silver Lake, telling Bloomberg he only spends 10 to 20 hours a year advising the firm and that he may end the relationship when his contract ends. That lines up with what he told me last year, as part of a profile I wrote in November. I asked Arora who he turns to for advice. He mentioned Yahoo (YHOO) founder Jerry Yang, his boss Masayoshi Son, and Egon Durban, a managing partner and managing director at Silver Lake. I asked which companies he advises at Silver Lake. His response is below:

Oh, I don’t do any companies. I met Egon in London 11 years ago, he had just moved there. I had just gotten off of an advisory gig at Apax because I didn’t feel like I had connected, so I said, “No I’m not doing it anymore.” A Spencer Stuart headhunter who helped me hire all the people for my first startup said, “Look, you have to meet this guy.” So I met Egon.

I said, “I don’t want to do board meetings, I don’t want to sit in rooms, I don’t want to be bored to death.” He said, “It’s very simple. I’ll call you for advice when I need you and if you are not conflicted, you tell me what you think. And if you’re conflicted, just tell me, ‘I’m conflicted’ and I won’t ask.” So that’s the arrangement.

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