Unicorn advocate on K Street: Softbank’s lobbyist
SoftBank’s lobbying shop offers government relations guidance to companies the Tokyo-based conglomerate invests in
Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley meandered by the sushi buffet, as other lawmakers and government officials, including Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso and Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell dropped in.
They gathered, late last year, in the sleek 10th floor, downtown Washington digs of Tokyo-based conglomerate SoftBank to mark the multinational company’s entrée into the nation’s capital. The operation is led by Ziad Ojakli, who previously ran global government affairs at Ford Motor Co. and who has assembled a team that draws from his tenure in the auto industry and in the George W. Bush administration.
Though nearly every major corporation has a K Street presence, SoftBank’s lobbying shop is uncommon. Not only does the unit play the traditional role of in-house representative in D.C. for SoftBank itself, but the company’s lobbying team also provides government relations guidance — for no charge — to the companies that SoftBank invests in, such as WeWork, Uber, Sprint and financial technology firm Kabbage, among about 50 others.
The policy issues range from artificial intelligence and privacy to regulations that govern foreign investment in the United States.
“It’s like having your cake and eating it too,” said Ojakli during an interview this winter in SoftBank’s office suite in a WeWork site near the White House. “[You’re] working for a corporation with all the resources behind you and helping the company, but it’s also the variety of all these different companies that are changing the face of industries across the United States and across the world.”
SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son’s vision for the company’s lobbying team was to provide “portfolio companies” — the ones SoftBank has invested in — government affairs, communications and legal support, Ojakli said.
SoftBank began as a software services company — its name refers to a bank of software, not an institution to stash your cash — and has morphed into something of a venture capital enterprise, pledging to infuse $50 billion into U.S. companies by this year. It’s on track at about $48 billion so far, Ojakli noted.
Still, SoftBank’s tech-heavy investments have created big losses for the company, according to earnings reports released in February, showing profits dipping by nearly 100 percent.
Ojakli said SoftBank takes a patient, long-term approach to its investments.
Ojakli joined SoftBank in the summer of 2018 with his first priority of building the team, which is mostly in Washington but also has executives in China, India and Florida, as well as in California and Texas.
His first hires took on a decidedly get-the-band-back-together approach.
“I got this crazy call one August morning, maybe July morning, when I was in my kitchen making breakfast,” recalled Bruce Andrews, a former Ford lobbyist who left the automaker a decade ago to work on Capitol Hill and in the Obama administration, where he served as deputy Commerce secretary until President Donald Trump took office.
It was Ojakli who told Andrews, “You’ve got to come with me.”
“And I literally said, ‘That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,’ and he said, ‘I’m going to call you back later today so we can talk about it,’ ” Andrews said.
After two meetings, they sketched out Andrews’ future role, heading up international public policy, on a napkin.
Ojakli tapped Christin Tinsworth Baker from Ford to lead communications and Brian Conklin, previously with insurance company USAA, to head U.S. government affairs, which includes the federal government as well as state and local issues. Ojakli and Conklin worked together previously in the George W. Bush administration’s legislative affairs operation.
Tonya Williams, a onetime legislative affairs liaison for former Vice President Joe Biden, and Alison Jones, formerly with Ford and White House legislative affairs during the George W. Bush administration, both serve as directors of government affairs for SoftBank.
The company recently tapped Victor Cui, previously with Starbucks, to head government affairs in China. Israel Hernandez, another former Ojakli colleague from the Bush White House, leads government affairs for Latin America and is based in Miami. In addition to the 20-plus people on Ojakli’s team, SoftBank also has outside lobbying consultants from the firms Subject Matter and Fierce Government Relations.
“This was daunting coming in, but it’s less daunting when you have people you respect, and they happen to be great friends and you’re all working together seamless,” Ojakli said. “You cut out years of getting to know you. You hit the ground running.”
Andrews said working with Ojakli again was part of the draw to SoftBank — “I have often described Z as my Republican brother of another mother,” he said — but the job itself appealed too.
“There really is no company in the world like SoftBank,” Andrews said. “Essentially, we were creating a world-class consulting firm within a company. … We’re literally in the middle of a number of what are by far and away the most interesting public policy issues that are taking place today.”
Despite that, SoftBank “is probably the biggest company that most people don’t know or understand,” he added. Most, he said, ask him, “How’s life at the bank?”
“I’m like, ‘Well, we’re not a bank,’ ” he shrugged.
One policy issue that has taken a high priority for Ojakli, Andrews and their team is navigating the approval process of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, known as CFIUS, an interagency federal panel that examines foreign investment in the U.S. for its national security implications.
“For every investment we do, we essentially have a process that we put through to understand the potential national security ramifications, especially in this day and age where the U.S.-China tensions are so great,” Andrews said. “We need to be very precise on how we deal, how our companies deal with those issues.”
Andrews’ team includes Jeff Dressler, who was an adviser on national security matters for Republican former Speaker Paul D. Ryan, and Jared Roscoe, formerly on the staff of Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner.
Ojakli said the lobbying operation also worked closely with Sprint in its merger with T-Mobile. SoftBank is an investor in Sprint.
SoftBank spent almost $1.9 million on federal lobbying in 2019, disclosures filed with Congress show, with an upward trajectory each quarter: $240,000 in the second quarter, $720,000 in the third quarter and $900,000 in the fourth quarter.
Some of the government relations matters are more local. WeWork, for example, has to navigate real estate and liquor licensing issues in the various cities where it operates.
SoftBank’s lobbying operation is now working to get to know its portfolio companies as well as explaining what SoftBank is, and is not.
“The question you’ve got to ask is, if you’re a member of Congress, if you’re an administration official: Why should they care? Why does it matter taking time to get to know SoftBank, and what SoftBank is doing?” Ojakli said. “And so our thought there is that you want to meet with SoftBank because it’s a lens into the future, with all of the portfolio companies that we’re investing in. If you want to understand where fintech is going, talk to SoftBank. You want to understand what’s the latest in health care technology, talk to Softbank.”
Based on the turnout at the company’s party late last year, including administration officials and members and staff from Capitol Hill, there’s an interest.
“We’ve introduced ourselves to over 250 members of Congress and officials,” Ojakli said. “It’s been a really great reception.”