If Robert Townsend wasn’t chief legal officer for SoftBank Group, he might just be a spy from a Robert Ludlum novel. He met his wife in Paris on the way to Africa and has lived all over the world; his three children were all born in different countries. He’s getting his pilot’s license. An avid scuba diver, he dreams of developing a desalination solution for island nations whose freshwater wells are threatened by rising sea levels. In addition to donating time to his local nature conservancy group, he’s in the process of building a vineyard and winery on twenty acres in Oregon. He’s also assisting a self-sustaining hybrid for-profit/nonprofit entity, which he helped establish as a leading source for safe and age-appropriate media for children.
And all that is just what Townsend does in his free time outside the SoftBank office. But his zeal for deals is made obvious by the way he discusses business transactions: it’s the same way he talks about his other passions.
First Time’s the Charm
A thirty-four-year veteran of the law firm Morrison & Foerster, Townsend has represented clients in more than two hundred public and private company acquisitions, strategic alliances, and financings. After representing SoftBank in its acquisition of a controlling interest in Sprint—at the time, the largest foreign investment ever done in the United States—Townsend developed a close working relationship with Marcelo Claure, who is COO of SoftBank Group Corp., and Ronald Fisher, who is vice chairman of SoftBank Group Corp. In 2018, after leading legal efforts for the successful merger of Sprint and T-Mobile US, Townsend was offered a job as SoftBank’s first-ever global chief legal officer, a role which he held at both SoftBank Group Corp., the ultimate parent entity of the SoftBank Group, and SoftBank Group International, one of SoftBank’s principal business units.
“I’d never been an internal legal officer,” Townsend says. “I just had to figure it out. I started by speaking with smart people who’d had the same job in other organizations. I spoke to Founder and CEO Masayoshi “Masa” Son, Ron Fisher, and Marcelo Claure about what their priorities were. I quickly realized that I would have a great deal of latitude in terms of how I wanted to manage the legal function, because Masa expects his executive team to know what they’re doing and to get it done in a way that inherently supports what he’s trying to do.”
The international SoftBank legal team has evolved structurally as well as culturally. The small legal department in Tokyo was relatively separate from the legal team in the US, and the legacy stateside group had almost entirely migrated to support SoftBank’s newly formed Vision Fund, leaving no real legal or compliance team in the States—or anywhere else outside Japan—to support the parent organization (SoftBank Group Corp.) or SoftBank Group International. Furthermore, Townsend felt that the small Japanese team needed to evolve as well. “When I came on board, I joined an initiative led by Masa and Marcelo to build out the executive function at SoftBank to be more global,” he says.
Natsuko Oga, SoftBank’s Tokyo-based chief counsel, says Townsend’s leadership has created stronger bonds among team members scattered across the globe. “Even though our work itself had already been global, it was not always easy for us to work as a team,” Oga explains. “Rob led everyone as one with outstanding leadership and helped make more cooperation possible.”
Patricia Menendez Cambo, the Miami-based general counsel of SoftBank’s $5 billion Latin America Fund and $100 million Opportunity Fund, concurs. “Rob has created a singularly respected department within SoftBank that the team is now able to benefit from. This increased the ability to benefit from synergies within the global talent in the legal team and created a unified, one-team culture.”
“We understand the business in a way that people at outside law firms never could.”
Additionally, Townsend wanted his team to be able to handle more transactional work in-house. “We understand the business in a way that people at outside law firms never could,” he says. “It’s just impossible without being in the organization to fully inculcate the challenges, the responsibilities, the longer-term strategy, and the multitude of things that you have to really take into consideration if you’re executing cross-border deals that are high-profile on a regular basis.”
“Rob’s vision of bringing in diverse perspectives and encouraging global collaboration has been terrific,” says Ken Siegel, managing partner at Morrison & Foerster Tokyo office. “Thanks to the foundation he has created, SoftBank’s legal team is poised for success for many years to come.”
Dynamism in Motion
The growth and refinement of the legal team become even more important when placed in the broader context of the larger changes occurring at SoftBank as a whole. “This is the most dynamic organization that I’ve ever worked with, by far,” Townsend says. “Forty years after having founded SoftBank and creating a company that now has a $150 billion market cap, Masa is completely comfortable with and able to pivot in a very short period of time in new directions for the business.”
In Townsend’s short tenure, SoftBank has gone from a company that primarily owned operating assets in communications to a global technology investment holding company with a strong artificial intelligence focus. Townsend needed a legal team that could not only adapt swiftly along with the company but actively embrace the process.
The chief legal officer’s first recruit was Stephen Lam, SoftBank Group International’s current general counsel. “Stephen has turned out to be one of my better decisions in life,” Townsend says. “He’s played a great role in both helping to recruit additional team members and inculcating a culture for this newly formed group.”
Lam says Townsend’s clear vision has helped unify both the legal and compliance departments into a global team, bound by shared core values of integrity and excellence. “This clear vision allowed us to ensure that our team delivered best-in-class service to all stakeholders and also build more meaningful interactions for team members, especially across Japan and the US, by aligning around shared interests and a shared drive to execute seamlessly, rather than being siloed based on geography,” Lam explains.
The effort to unify the legal team did have some hiccups. Townsend came from the firm world, where having less structure is the norm. He says that environment left lawyers who had arrived with more entrenched corporate résumés feeling like there was a framework missing. One addition who was instrumental to designing and implementing the solution to this challenge was a new hire: Aaron Katzel, SoftBank’s group head of legal, compliance operations, and innovation.
“Because roles, responsibilities, and capabilities weren’t always clear among people on the team and information wasn’t always shared effectively and broadly, we weren’t delivering our services as efficiently as we could have,” Katzel says. “So we invested a lot of time in visiting members of the team around the world, reviewing the ways we were delivering our services, considering what technology was being used and how, and thinking about how we could provide more clarity and authority around everyone’s responsibilities, better, more current information about the company’s priorities, and the technology to allow us all to do our jobs more quickly and efficiently.”
Brendan Kelleher, SoftBank Group International’s chief compliance officer, says he’s personally felt the benefits of a more structured environment. “More structure meant better definition of roles and responsibilities for me and for those with whom I interact. It was smart to step back and consider the best organizational structure for the company’s challenges rather than continuing to barrel forward with the same old approach.”
Structure in a Storm
The strategic group plan was dubbed Vision 2020, and Townsend says the early 2020 rollout is one of his proudest achievements at SoftBank, not only because of how well it was received by his team, but because the focus on structure and communication actually positioned the team for success when faced with the pandemic that followed.
Robert G. DeLaMater and Sarah Payne, both partners at Sullivan & Cromwell, say, “We have seen over multiple assignments how Rob pushes his legal team, both inside and outside, to find creative solutions, but he takes the harder next step of pressure-testing ideas from multiple angles to be sure they hold up under exacting legal analysis and meet the business objectives and best fit the situation. He has that rare ability to lead the team to appreciate the full picture.”
In addition to better connecting SoftBank’s legal team, Townsend has helped connect his department and organization to the communities in which they operate. In 2020, SoftBank Group created the Opportunity Fund, a $100 million investment fund for entrepreneurs of color. The legal team successfully documented, drafted, and secured internal approvals to have the Opportunity Fund up and operating in just two weeks.
In addition to the Opportunity Fund, Townsend and his team also spearheaded an initiative called “Doing Our Part,” which aimed to channel funds to directly support the communities in which SoftBank operates and to address systemic social inequalities that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. With $100,000 in seed money from SoftBank, the legal team raised another $600,000 from outside law firms and employees in support of “Doing Our Part.” The funds went to food banks in New York, California, the Bay Area, Miami, and Washington, DC, along with leading social justice organizations such as the NAACP.
“This is the most dynamic organization that I’ve ever worked with, by far.”
“The program awakened me to the need for legal departments to participate in social issues and, where possible, provide pro bono time and services,” says Tim Mackey, SoftBank’s current chief legal officer and group compliance officer. “Not just because the company has a responsibility as a corporate citizen, but because we, as individuals, can benefit by feeling gratitude for all that we have.”
Both internally and externally, Townsend says his global team’s transition is still a work in progress, focused on continual improvement and delivering measurable benefits to SoftBank. SoftBank’s global governance is also an area of continuous improvement. There are liability management issues that will be areas of focus in the coming year. But Townsend speaks about his initiatives not as possibilities but as certainties.
With the dynamic evolution of SoftBank’s legal and compliance function well underway, and with the Vision 2020 road map providing a sustainable and durable strategic plan for the department well into the future, Townsend decided in late 2020 that the time was right to transition to a new role as senior advisor to SoftBank Group Corp. and SoftBank Group International, a position in which he continues to actively advise Son, Claure, and other senior SoftBank executives on some of the organization’s most critical challenges and opportunities.
Stepping up as a result of this transition is the leadership team that Townsend carefully cultivated during his time at SoftBank. Headed by Mackey, who has assumed the role of chief legal officer, the team includes Oga, Lam, Menendez Cambo, Kelleher, Katzel, and other talented team members in both Japan and the US. Building on this progress, his global legal team will continue to evolve together—and if they need a hand, Townsend will soon have his pilot’s license to fly himself wherever they need his expert and experienced leadership.
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“Globally, Morrison & Foerster is known as a ‘go-to’ firm for sophisticated cross-border deal-making. We understand the nuances and complexities of working in multiple jurisdictions and various time zones, but what truly distinguishes our firm is our deep client focus. We view our clients as extensions of our own teams, and we measure our successes around their successes, which is clearly evidenced by our longstanding collaborative partnership with SoftBank,” says Ken Siegel, Morrison & Foerster’s Tokyo managing partner.
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–David Greene, Partner