Jack Ma to shift focus away from Alibaba

Jack Ma (C), Chairman of the Alibaba Corporation in China, poses for a group photo during the first annual African Ranger Awards ceremony in Cape Town, on 7 August, 2018. (Rodger Bosch / AFP Photo)

Jack Ma is making plans for a future after Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., the business he co-founded and turned into Asia’s most valuable company.

Ma will unveil succession plans Monday and work on the transition over a significant period of time, according to the South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong newspaper owned by Alibaba. China’s richest man explained in an interview on Friday that he plans to shift his focus to education and return to teaching, his first love before starting his e-commerce empire. He has created a foundation in his own name, modelled in part on the efforts of Microsoft Corp. co-founder and fellow billionaire Bill Gates.

Ma, who turns 54 on Monday, had already started to hand off responsibilities years ago, giving up the chief executive officer post in 2013. Still, he has remained executive chairman and continued to wield tremendous influence within the company. He has been the public face of the company - and indeed China’s technology industry - while Daniel Zhang serves as CEO with a new generation of management in support.

“Jack stepping down won’t affect the company too much because he hasn’t been looking after daily business for some time and Daniel Zhang has been taking on the majority of managing responsibilities,” said Steven Zhu, an analyst with Pacific Epoch. “Alibaba has done a lot of preparation for talent supply and nurturing.”

An Alibaba spokesman declined to comment but advised citing the SCMP’s story. An earlier story by the New York Times said Ma would step down Monday.

Alibaba, now valued at more than US$400 billion, has expanded well beyond its original focus on e-commerce into cloud computing, digital payments and investing in China’s start-ups. Ma’s departure reflects the confidence in the current management, which is controlled by 36 partners including Zhang.

“I have full confidence in my team and in the partner structure, which lots of investors don’t like,” Ma said. “I think some day, and soon, I’ll go back to teaching. This is something I think I can do much better than being CEO of Alibaba.”

Ma said he sees himself as an accidental executive. He was an English teacher before moving into the business world with Alibaba’s founding almost 20 years ago. He now has a net worth of more than US$40 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He didn’t indicate if he would give away his money or put it into a trust as other billionaires have done.

“I’ve prepared a Jack Ma Foundation. All these things that I’ve been preparing for 10 years,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I can learn from Bill Gates. I can never be as rich, but one thing I can do better is to retire earlier.”

Ma was born in September 1964 to Chinese traditional musician-storytellers living in Hangzhou, an ancient capital that’s become a global high-tech hub and bastion of entrepreneurship, in part because of Alibaba’s base there. He started Alibaba.com in 1999 as a business-to-business marketplace, backed by US$60,000 from 18 co-founders.

With savvy deals and an investment from SoftBank Group Corp., it’s now morphed into a behemoth that can make or break brands. Customers use its e-commerce platforms to order products that last year saw package deliveries reach 55 million a day. Ma also controls Ant Financial, the online financial platform that runs China’s largest mobile payment system and money-market fund. The business has more than 870 million users via payment system Alipay and its affiliates.

Alibaba has one of the strongest management teams in corporate China and, even if he steps down, Ma is likely to still have a role in setting top level strategy, said Brock Silvers, managing director of Kaiyuan Capital.

“When Jack Ma speaks longingly of retirement from Alibaba, there’s no reason not to take him at his word,” said Silvers. “On a day-to-day basis, Alibaba shareholders probably have little to fear should the charismatic Ma pull back a bit further."

A focus on education wouldn’t surprise keen followers of Ma, who has spoken frequently of its importance to him and some of his shortcomings as a student, including failing China’s national university exam twice.

“I was not considered a good student but I improved, we keep on learning all the time. So, I want to devote most of my time to this,” Ma said.

During his time as chairman, he has helped guide growth at home and overseas while also spearheading Alibaba’s 2014 initial public offering, the biggest ever. Ma was among the first foreign business leaders to meet with Donald Trump after his election.

Ma has thrived in the spotlight as he became a much sought-after guest for conferences around the world, even as tensions between China and the United States (US) have risen over trade. But he has also said in the past that he isn’t happy being the wealthiest person in China, where vast personal fortunes have only emerged in recent years and are subject to intense scrutiny.

As someone who has met the leaders of the world’s two largest economies, Ma sees his future philanthropy as a way to bridge the divide between them.

“People in China and America, one thing we have in common is the heart of love and respect,” Ma said. “This is a common language we have. The first tech revolution caused WWI, the second caused WWII, now we are a third revolution, what’s gonna happen? It should be a war against poverty, disease, et cetera.”

If he were to leave the company he founded in a Hangzhou apartment, it would remain controlled by the partnership structure, which enables a group of executives at Alibaba and affiliates to decide on board nominations.

"It’s the system which I think I have contributed to along with my team and this will be able to make the company last long,” Ma said. - Bloomberg