Finance whiz reshaped the face of retail

Top News | BLOOMBERG 11 Sep 2018

Stewardship of Asia's most valuable company is passing to a financial wizard who has led the company's effort to drag the traditional retail industry into the 21st century.

Daniel Zhang became chief executive officer of Alibaba barely three years ago. The 46-year-old certified accountant has been the driving force behind a mandate to transform old-school commerce using technology that it's dubbed "new retail."

Since his ascension, the Shanghai-educated executive has proved a capable operator, designing and pulling off mega-events such as the annual Singles' Day shopping bonanza.

The company's stock has risen 87 percent over his tenure and Alibaba now has a market value of about US$420.8 billion, eclipsing WeChat operator Tencent Holdings.

Zhang's known as more of a financial mind than a technology visionary in Ma's mold and the veteran CFO espouses a less flamboyant style than his charismatic boss.

Ma hired Zhang from mainland gaming giant Shanda Interactive Entertainment in 2007 - an episode Ma handled with kid gloves because Shanda's founder was a longtime friend and prominent entrepreneur. Ma went to Chen Tianqiao's home for dinner and apologized in person for the recruitment.

Zhang now has to steer China's largest corporation abroad, where it's made headway in markets like Southeast Asia but remains alien to many Western consumers. He'll enjoy unprecedented authority to do so, combining the chairman and CEO roles for the first time since Ma himself held the positions prior to 2013.

His signature endeavor has been his drive to transform old-school shopping using data analysis to manage inventory and shipping. That's an effort that's driven more than US$8 billion of deals in the span of several years, involving traditional retail chains such as Suning.

Zhang joined Alibaba in 2007 as chief financial officer of Taobao, when the consumer-to-consumer marketplace was fresh off a victory over Meg Whitman and eBay but also battling a reputation for fakes. He proved his worth by turning Taobao Mall into Tmall, which sold higher-quality goods direct from branded merchants.

Earlier this month, Zhang penned an editorial for CNBC in which he explained that acquiring beats investing when it comes to strategic projects.

"If you're going to win a race, it's more important to buy a horse than just bet on it," he wrote.

Zhang's also been credited as one of the key architects of Alibaba's Singles' Day extravaganza, now an annual US$25 billion shopping spree that covers more than 200 countries.

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