Japanese Tech Company Gets A French CEO

Michel Combes, a graduate of the France’s elite Ecole Polytechnique, has three decades of experience in the telecom industry.

When Softbank COO Marcelo Claure announced his departure from the Japanese tech conglomerate, he made headlines worldwide. Less noticed was the simultaneous nomination of French businessman Michel Combes, 59, as CEO of Softbank Group International (SBGI).

Combes, a telecom specialist, is getting closer to Chairman Masayoshi Son’s inner circle. Combes had been president of the subsidiary SBGI since April 2020. Now he is overseeing the holding company’s international investment portfolio. “I have great confidence that Michel Combes and the talented Softbank team will continue with the great work we have underway,” said Son.

The energetic new CEO, a lover of sports cars, has known his Japanese boss for many years. It was Son himself who first hired Combes. When the French executive joined Softbank subsidiary Sprint in 2018, he moved to its corporate headquarters in Kansas—settling in a house where Son had once lived. 

Combes, a graduate of the France’s elite Ecole Polytechnique, has three decades of experience in the telecom industry. Before Sprint, he had several CEO roles at the multinational telecom Altice, equipment company Alcatel-Lucent, Tele Diffusion de France and Vodafone in Europe. At the beginning of his career, he served as technical adviser to the French minister of transportation.

Life at the top of the industry has had its turbulence. When, in 2015, he organized the sale of Alcatel-Lucent to its Finnish rival Nokia, his €14 million ($15.9 million) reported bonus “shocked” the economy minister, a certain Emmanuel Macron, and the bonus was cut in half. It didn’t deter him from M&A: He was part of the Sprint/T-Mobile deal announced in 2020 and celebrated the union of Televisa-Univision, the new Spanish-language media company, and part of Softbank’s portfolio.

Nowadays, the globetrotting Combes sits on various boards in the Japanese conglomerate’s orbit: WeWork, Sofi Technologies, One Web. He also keeps an eye on Softbank investments in such French startups as Jellysmack, Contentsquare and Sorare.