New Alibaba era as Jack Ma goes

World | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 9 Sep 2019

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

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

Ma plans to put his vast fortune - among China's biggest at US$41 billion (HK$319.8 billion) - into initiatives serving his first love, education, following 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 operational reins have for a couple of years now been in the hands of a respected team of executives who have kept it on e-commerce's cutting-edge.

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

He is expected to retain advisory functions.

But the transition to figures like chief executive Daniel Zhang, and co-founder and executive vice chairman Joseph Tsai - announced a year ago - may prove to be the "gold standard" for tech-company succession, said Jeffrey Towson, an equity investor and professor at Peking University. "He's succeeded at what Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and [Yahoo co-founder] Jerry Yang failed at, which is making themselves redundant," said Towson. "He built a really robust culture at Alibaba and they are still just innovating like crazy."

Ma was a cash-strapped entrepreneur when he convinced friends to give him US$60,000 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, coincidentally a key objective of the government today 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. Alibaba and its imitators are accused of fostering rampant commercialism and materialism and the selling of counterfeit goods.

Chinese e-commerce today also produces mountains of packaging material, contributing to a rising 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 bricks-and-mortar stores - while its Alipay finance unit has pioneered cashless digital payments.

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