Bloomberg — Marcelo Claure is probably best known in the world of high finance as the hulking deputy to SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son. More specifically, the guy who ran the cleanup job at the investment firm’s most spectacular debacle, WeWork (WE).
Claure, standing a towering six-foot-six (two meters), is ready to be known for something else: a preeminent investor in his own right.
That’s a stiffer challenge than it was just six months ago, when he left SoftBank after a contentious split from Son, his onetime mentor. Not only have the plunging valuations of the Japanese firm’s investments cast a shadow, but those who’ve worked closely with Claure say that while he’s a skilled operator, he’s unproven when it comes to picking winners.
Still, he has at his disposal a $2 billion fortune that’s among the biggest for any Bolivian since “tin king” Simon Iturri Patino. To deploy his personal wealth, Claure formed a family office, Claure Group, and has ambitions to eventually open it up to outside money as well.
“We invest in real estate, technology, in gaming, we will be investing in crypto, public, private and seed funding,” Claure, 51, said in a May interview with Bloomberg Linea. “It’s a combination of everything.”
Family offices have increasingly become the platform of choice for wealthy investors’ second acts. The vehicles, which manage the personal capital of the ultra-rich, are lightly regulated, nimble and as public or private as the founder wants. They can offer a shot at reinvention for those in the shadows of prominent bosses or who were snared in regulatory or performance woes. Hedge-fund founder Dan Och’s fortune grew by more than $1 billion from investing through his family office, Willoughby Capital, after exiting Och-Ziff Capital Management in the wake of a foreign bribery scandal.
Founders may look to open up their firms to select outside investors to gain scale or defray costs.
“I’ve seen a number of occasions where a family sets up a family office and they either overbuild it or think they’ve found the magic sauce and say ‘Hey, I can open this up to family and friends because I’m so good,’” said Samy Dwek, chief executive officer at White Knight Consulting. “It’s an idea that works — when you have a track record.”
For Claure, his performance record risks being diminished in the wake of a global tech slump that’s slashed valuations at many companies incubated in SoftBank’s Vision Fund. The Japanese conglomerate lost a record 2.1 trillion yen ($15.4 billion) for the quarter ended in March.
Claure may be able to brush off that stigma. At SoftBank, he was mostly in charge of operations, tasked with helping the companies in the Vision Fund grow and become profitable.
Investing wasn’t Claure’s forte when Son approached him in 2013 to join SoftBank and head its new acquisition, Sprint. Claure at the time was running a successful telecom equipment distributor he’d founded and grown into the largest Hispanic-owned business in the US.
To sweeten his job offer, Son agreed to buy a majority of Claure’s business, Brightstar, for $1.26 billion. Claure steered Sprint to profitability and through its merger with T-Mobile (TMUS in the US stock markets), pulling off a $22 billion bet by SoftBank that could have been fatal for the Japanese firm had Sprint gone bankrupt.
What Son saw in Claure was a dogged entrepreneur with equal skill in operating businesses. Investing know-how, on the other hand, was his admitted weakness. “You suck at investing,” Claure has said Son told him, before extending an invite to move to Tokyo to oversee the Vision Fund’s operating companies and learn firsthand.
“He’s a very talented businessman — he’s really an operator, entrepreneur much more than an investor by nature,” said Niccolo de Masi, chief executive officer of dMY Technology Group, who worked with Claure when his former company, Essential, partnered with Sprint.
As SoftBank’s chief operating officer, Claure worked with an assortment of startups within SoftBank’s portfolio, from robot builder Boston Dynamics to chipmaker Arm. Claure took over as chairman of WeWork in 2019 after its valuation collapsed following a failed initial public offering. (It eventually went public through a special-purpose acquisition company in October.)
Claure’s exposure to hundreds of startups in his time at SoftBank likely shaped his eclectic personal investments, as did his wide-ranging background.
Born in Guatemala to Bolivian parents, he grew up all over the world due to his diplomat father’s stations, which included Morocco and the Dominican Republic. After graduating high school in Bolivia’s La Paz, he attended Bentley College outside Boston, where he started his first venture, trading airlines’ frequent flyer miles. His second, Brightstar, sprung from a chance offer to buy a cellphone shop.
Those who know him describe a relentless work ethic. Bolivia, among the poorest countries in Latin America, has a gross domestic product that’s only 20 times bigger than Claure’s personal net worth.
“Coming out of a country like that and coming to the US with unlimited opportunities, you have a bit of a chip on your shoulder that pushes you. No doubt he has some of that,” said Miguel Armaza, a venture investor and fellow Bolivian who met Claure through his podcast. “You’ve seen different realities.”
“Anybody that knows me knows that I work extremely hard — I don’t tolerate mediocrity,” Claure told WeWork’s shellshocked employees, according to a leaked transcript of his first all-hands meeting with the office. “Every company that I’ve run, so far I’ve done good.”
Claure’s time under the tutelage of the hyperkinetic Son is evident in what he’s revealed of his personal investments. Tech, unsurprisingly, is a focus: He’s invested in venture capital funds as well as in startups directly, according to documents seen by Bloomberg. He also has holdings in crypto, hedge funds and real estate, and last year sold a Miami Beach mansion to Apollo Global Management co-founder Josh Harris for $32.3 million.
Earlier this year, he started Claure Capital, a division within his family office that will focus on public and private investments. Through other vehicles, he plans to invite outsiders to join in on specific deals and — after his non-compete with SoftBank expires — raise a fund that others can invest in. On his own, he’s taken stakes in digital mortgage-servicing platform Valon, cybersecurity firm ID.me and Aprende Institute, an online education platform for Latin America and its diaspora that was founded by his brother, Martin.
Those who’ve worked with him suspect his operational experience means he’ll lean toward taking larger stakes, where he can wield more influence.
Claure’s fortune originated with Brightstar, the telecom-equipment provider he founded and later sold to Son, but his time at SoftBank enriched him further. In addition to salary — he received 1.8 billion yen in fiscal 2020 — he built up a stake in Sprint valued at $680 million and sometimes invested personally in startups he introduced to SoftBank, the New York Times reported last year.
Still, Claure’s fortune is dwarfed by Son’s net worth, which, even after falling 30% this year, is valued at $14.1 billion by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Claure’s demands to be better compensated ultimately led to his departure in January.
His exit package included 4.6 billion yen in severance and another 8.1 billion yen in incentives tied to the performance of the Vision Fund’s Latin America fund, according to a SoftBank filing last month. Those potential payouts keep him in SoftBank’s orbit, as does a $515 million loan he received in 2020 to purchase Sprint shares. The balance is due in 2024.
For even the most famous money managers, it’s a difficult time to raise funds. Soaring inflation and slumping markets, particularly for tech, have investors leery about deploying cash. Wealthy families managing their own money are dialing back venture investments after more than a decade of steady growth, according to a report by Silicon Valley Bank and Campden Wealth.
Claure will be relying on his extensive experience in the trenches with startups to convince potential co-investors his familiarity with founders and the travails of day-to-day business translate into strong returns.
For now, he’s cultivating the lifestyle of a billionaire. His Twitter feed is a torrent of ebullient messages and snapshots of glamorous locales, like Tenerife, Aspen, Positano and St. Tropez.
A passionate soccer fan, he owns the professional Bolivian team Club Bolivar and a stake in Spain’s Girona FC. His first official job after graduating college was heading the business operations of the Bolivia Football Federation, just before the team qualified for the World Cup.
“I was blessed,” he said years later in an interview with Babson College about the team’s improbable success. “It taught me anything was possible.”