Business

Smooth succession: Jack Ma eases out of thriving Alibaba

SHANGHAI Jack Ma will step down as chairman of Alibaba, but the start-up he built into an online retail behemoth is expected to keep thriving as it enters a new era thanks to a culture of innovation he helped nurture.

A former English teacher whose playful image shattered the stereotype of the drab Chinese executive, Mr Ma officially leaves tomorrow, his 55th birthday.

He plans to put his fortune - among China's biggest at $41 billion - into initiatives in education, his first love, following in the footsteps of a fellow tech innovator he admires: Bill Gates.

The departure of charismatic founders from big tech companies typically causes hand-wringing and wobbling share prices, but not at Alibaba.

The company's operations have for a couple of years been in the hands of a respected team of executives who have kept it on e-commerce's cutting-edge.

Mr Ma was Alibaba's driving force and a company ambassador, known for stunts like a Michael Jackson-inspired dance at an Alibaba anniversary celebration two years ago and starring in his own gongfu film.

He is expected to retain some advisory functions. But the transition to figures like CEO Daniel Zhang, and co-founder and executive vice-chairman Joseph Tsai - announced exactly a year ago - may prove to be the "gold standard" for tech-company succession, said Mr Jeffrey Towson, an equity investor and professor at Peking University.

'MADE HIMSELF REDUNDANT'

"He's succeeded at what Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and (Yahoo co-founder) Jerry Yang failed at, which is making themselves redundant," said Mr Towson.

"He built a really robust culture at Alibaba and they are still just innovating like crazy."

Mr Ma was a poor Chinese entrepreneur when he convinced friends to give him US$60,000 (S$82,000) to start Alibaba in Hangzhou in 1999.

With monthly active users of more than 750 million today, Alibaba helped to unlock China's massive consumer power, a key objective of the government as its seeks to fuel domestic demand to lessen the reliance on fickle foreign trade.

Its Taobao and Tmall platforms have helped countless businesses grow.

There have been criticisms, however. Alibaba and its imitators are accused of fostering rampant commercialism and the selling of counterfeit goods.

Chinese e-commerce also produces mountains of packaging material, contributing to a national garbage problem.

But Alibaba has continued to expand its ecosystem, pushing into cloud computing, entertainment, and a "new retail" concept - combining online ordering with brick-and-mortar stores - while its Alipay finance unit has pioneered cashless digital payments.

Despite a slowing Chinese economy and the US trade war, earnings have remained strong.

Mr Ma already has launched a range of education initiatives.

Last month in Shanghai, he sketched out his mantra going forward with US entrepreneur Elon Musk, good-naturedly chiding him about his obsession with putting a man on Mars.

"We need a hero like you, but we need more heroes like us improving things on Earth," Mr Ma said. - AFP

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