Masayoshi Son's nose for an investment has turned a $20 million start-up punt on Alibaba into a stake worth maybe $50 billion or more as the Chinese e-commerce giant co-founded and led by Jack Ma heads to what could be the biggest U.S. tech IPO of all time.
Son, CEO of Japanese telecoms firm SoftBank, also put money into a young Yahoo, co-founded by Jerry Yang, in 1995, and Yahoo's subsequent investment in Alibaba saw Ma, Son and Yang build Alibaba Group Holding into one of world's biggest internet companies as China's e-commerce market took off.
"It was the look in his eye, it was an 'animal smell'," said Son of his decision to back Ma when they first met in 2000. "It was the same when we invested in Yahoo ... when they were still only 5-6 people. I invested based on my sense of smell," he quipped in a group media interview in May.
Under pressure from investors, Yang quit Yahoo in early 2012 and gave up his seat on Alibaba's board. He is now a founding partner of AME Cloud Ventures, a San Francisco venture fund.
But next month, the three poster boys for Asian technology entrepreneurship, bound by a shared ambition and a taste for sushi and golf, are set to be reunited on Alibaba's board following the firm's long-awaited New York IPO.
For potential IPO investors, the reunion - Yang will be an independent director, while Son will be a director and Ma the executive chairman - is likely to further tighten Ma's control over the company as Son and Yang tend to follow his direction, former Alibaba, SoftBank and Yahoo insiders said.
SoftBank has a 34 percent stake in Alibaba, and Yahoo owns 23 percent. Son has said SoftBank doesn't plan to sell down its Alibaba stake in the IPO, while Yahoo may sell up to about 16.5 percent of Alibaba.
Alibaba, SoftBank and a spokesman for Yang declined to make Ma, Son and Yang available for interview for this article.
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"Mr. Ten times"
The son of a pachinko parlor operator, Son has risen to the top of Forbes' Japan rich-list, forging SoftBank into a tech titan worth $84 billion, making it Japan's second-most valuable listed company behind Toyota Motor.
SoftBank increased its stake in Yahoo in 1996, buying into the U.S. firm's IPO to become its primary shareholder. The stake has since been whittled down to almost nothing, but the two remain Yahoo Japan Corp's biggest investors, each holding more than a third of the Japanese firm.
In 2000, Son met Ma, an elfin and outspoken former English teacher from China's eastern city of Hangzhou. The two, who often joke about being both short and smart, according to a person close to Son, saw each other as kindred spirits. Their shared drive helped Alibaba grow from just 18 people working out of an apartment to a company with more than 22,000 employees and global ambitions.
David Wei, a former CEO of Alibaba.com and co-founder of Vision Knight Capital, recalled how he nicknamed Son "Mr. Ten Times". "Every time I explained any business plan or model, Masa's first reaction was to say, 'David, can this be ten times bigger?'" said Wei. "In the cases I managed to answer, he would ask again, 'What about ten times more?'"
When Ma first heard that Son was in China sniffing out potential investments, he emailed him and snagged some brief 'face time'. After just five minutes of listening to Ma riffing on his vision from a scrap of paper, Son extended the meeting and ended up investing 2 billion yen (about $20 million at the time) in Ma's company.
"Ma is a 'never-say-die' kind of person, but really there was only one person who understood him, and look how much money it's earned Masayoshi Son," said Shou Yuan, a former Alibaba employee acquainted with Ma and Son. "Son has a lot of self-confidence, he's even conceited, but his appearance is always one of modesty. He's crazy, but Ma's also crazy. It's very common for crazy people to like each other."
When Alibaba launched its Taobao consumer-to-consumer marketplace in 2003, Son donated his wristwatch to be sold on the new site and, as the pair met more frequently, Ma developed a love for Japanese food. "Jack always loved the best Japanese food ... and the best Japanese food in Japan can always be generated by Masa," said Wei, the former Alibaba.com chief.
Yang, who like Son has a Japanese wife, shares the taste for good Japanese cuisine, and is a frequent diner at a small sushi bar in Los Altos, California, a popular hangout for Silicon Valley heavyweights including Google's Sergey Brin.
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A philosophical pairing
Ma first met Yang in the late 1990s, when he was working for the government and acted as Yang's official guide to the Great Wall. By 2005, their friendship had developed and the idea of Yahoo investing in Alibaba came up.
Yang contacted Ma at the prompting of senior Yahoo executives who were trying to figure out how best to get a foothold in the China market, said a former Yahoo executive familiar with the Alibaba transaction.
"Jerry was reluctant at first because it was very difficult to do business with Chinese entrepreneurs," he said. "(Yang and Ma) spent a lot of time together, they had to get to know each other, build a relationship ... Almost all were quiet, deep discussions, philosophical, full of Chinese proverbs – particularly from Jack."
Ma kept Son in the loop in the months running up to Yahoo's investment, and even took up golf so he could bond with Yang. "Jack committed a lot of effort to learning golf, I think because Jerry invited him, and he couldn't play," Wei said.
The final decision - with Yahoo buying a 40 percent stake in Alibaba for more than $1 billion - was made at a Pebble Beach golfing retreat exclusively for Chinese professionals. "Jack really liked Jerry's personality," said a person whose firm invested in Alibaba. "Jerry really solidified that deal."