By Mari Saito
TOKYO, Oct 12 (Reuters) - Softbank Corp chiefMasayoshi Son told reporters last week he decided to buy asmaller rival for $1.84 billion on an impulse - small change forsomeone who Forbes estimates lost $18 billion in the dotcombust, but an unusual move in staid Japan.
Like British entrepreneur Richard Branson, whose Virginbrand has moved from music to space travel, Son's Softbank haspivoted in 30 years through selling and publishing software withits acquisition of Ziff Davis and Comdex, via financial servicesas part of a group that bid for the now-defunct Nippon CreditBank, to a pioneer stake in Yahoo .
"He's similar to Branson, but Masa is razor-focused tomobile Internet. Unlike Branson, he won't enter other sectorssuch as a coke or airlines," said Son's younger brother Taizo,who runs the Movida Japan venture capital fund but has workedwith Masayoshi for years and still advises him.
Masashi Oda, equity chief investment officer at SumitomoMitsui Investment Trust, also sees similarities between Son andBranson. "They fight government regulation and expand businessby lowering prices," he said.
"Son is good at adapting to the new environment. Heintroduced the Internet to ordinary Japanese by loweringtelecoms charges around 2000 and introduced smartphones byselling the iPhone in 2008," Oda added.
Son, born to Korean parents in southwestern Japan, movedabroad as a teenager to study in California and sold his firstpatented translating device to Sharp Corp while he wasat university there.
In 2006, Son, a personal friend of Bill Gates and the lateSteve Jobs, threw Softbank into the mobile carrier business,buying Vodafone's Japan unit for $15.5 billion.
The telecoms group, Japan's second-largest, now hasambitions to rival the biggest in the world as it looks to breakinto the United States mobile market.
Softbank is in talks to take a majority stake in SprintNextel , America's No. 3 wireless carrier, for $12.8billion, said a source with direct knowledge of the matter.Other sources have said Softbank is in talks with Japan'sleading banks to line up a loan of as much as $23 billion tofund possible U.S. acquisitions.
At last week's news conference, Son, 55, said his decisionto offer a tethering service for Apple Inc's new iPhone5, allowing users to connect their smartphones and laptops, waswhat prompted his move to buy smaller rival eAccess .
"After we decided to offer a tethering service on theiPhone5 a week ago, right at that moment and place, I realizedwe needed to merge with eAccess ... to set up a network capableof offering the service," he said.
While local rivals NTT Docomo Inc and KDDI Corp
were marketing clunky feature phones that wereover-customized for Japanese users, Son was eyeing the iPhoneprize. Softbank was first in Japan to carry the popular deviceand had a monopoly on it until KDDI added the iPhone last year.
If successful with its Sprint deal, Softbank would becatapulted on to the world stage in competition with AT&Tand Verizon Wireless .
And Son's ambitions may not end there.
Faced with a stagnating market at home, Softbank could useSprint as a vehicle to acquire another U.S. mobile providerMetroPCS Communications Inc in a two-step deal thatcould cost more than $25 billion, Japanese media reported - arecord for a Japanese firm buying overseas.
Tadashi Yanai, head of Asia's largest clothing retailer FastRetailing Co Ltd - and the only person in Japan whotops Son's estimated $7.2 billion fortune - called the Softbankchief "the best entrepreneur in Japan today". Yanai sits on theSoftbank board.
Others lauded his decision making prowess.
"He's the only one who can do a big deal like this. He'sincredibly speedy with his decision making and that makes himdifferent among traditional Japanese executives. I bet he hasn'teven spent a month thinking over this (deal)," said a Japanesebanker who has met Son several times.
At first glance, the slim and softly-spoken Son doesn't comeacross as a risk-embracing entrepreneur.
Since the trauma of last year's earthquake, tsunami andnuclear disaster, Son has become an outspoken opponent ofnuclear energy. At one point, he said he would quit theexecutive suite and concentrate on energy issues. His boardpersuaded him to stay, and Softbank's energy unit, SB EnergyCorp, is now building Japan's biggest solar power plant.
Son personally donated 10 billion yen ($127.4 million) tothe parts of Japan hit by the natural disasters and said hisentire salary until his retirement would go towards supportingthose orphaned in the region.
An avid user of Twitter, Son often cheers on hiscompany-owned baseball team, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, andsends personal tweets to his nearly 2 million users.
"Aren't your goals too low? Aren't you too complacent withyour ordinary life?" he asked in a recent tweeted message.
"That's what I ask myself."
($1 = 78.5100 Japanese yen)
(Additional reporting by Tim Kelly, Emi Emoto, James Topham andDominic Lau; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)
Keywords: SPRINT SOFTBANK/SON