Daniel Zhang will replace founder Jack Ma as chairman of Alibaba a year from today, adding the role to his job as chief executive of China’s most valuable company and ending days of speculation after it emerged at the weekend that Mr Ma would retire from the ecommerce group.
Mr Ma, a former English teacher who founded the company 19 years ago and built it into a business with a stock market valuation of US$420bn, said that he would instead focus his efforts on philanthropy and education. “I still have lots of dreams to pursue,” Mr Ma said in a letter to customers, staff and shareholders on Monday.
“I also want to return to education, which excites me with so much blessing because this is what I love to do.” The 54-year-old will spend the next 12 months ensuring “a smooth transition of the chairmanship to Mr Zhang”, Alibaba said.
Mr Ma, who owns 6.4 per cent of Alibaba and has a net worth of more than US$40bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, will remain on the board until the 2020 annual general meeting. The transition has been a decade in the making, with Mr Ma focusing on a long-term vision and playing a more ambassadorial role since stepping down as chief executive in 2013.
He will remain a lifetime member of the 36-person Alibaba partnership, the torchbearer for corporate culture and mission, and a shareholder in the group. News of Mr Ma’s impending retirement comes at a time when sentiment towards Chinese tech has been under pressure both overseas, as trade tensions escalate between China and the US, and at home as Beijing ramps up regulation on the sector.
Duncan Clark, head of BDA consultancy and author of a book on Alibaba, noted that Mr Ma is “a great delegator — none of this [Tesla chief] Elon Musk 120 hour weeks”. However, as a figurehead Mr Ma will be hard to beat. A natural performer, his demeanour contrasts sharply with the more sober Mr Zhang.
Mr Ma spends much of his time on the road, meeting heads of state as well as business partners and youthful entrepreneurs across the globe as the face of the company. Recommended The Monday Interview Daniel Zhang of Alibaba on leading a supercharged empire “The question is, do you need a ringmaster to keep it all going?” added Mr Clark. Mr Zhang, 46, joined Alibaba in August 2007 as chief financial officer of Taobao Marketplace, the online ecommerce platform.
An alumnus of Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, he has worked with PwC, the professional services firm, and an online game developer. Before becoming chief executive of Alibaba in 2015, he served as chief operating officer.
In his letter on Monday, Mr Ma described his successor as showing “superb talent, business acumen and determined leadership”, adding that Mr Zhang’s “analytical mind is unparalleled . . . and he has the guts to innovate and test creative business models”.
Mr Ma has long spoken of building a company to last more than a century. “No company can rely solely on its founders. Of all people, I should know that,” he added.