When Alibaba's Jack Ma Retires To Focus On Philanthropy, Education

by Sohini Bagchi    Sep 11, 2018

jack ma

Jack Ma, co-founder of China’s largest ecommerce firm Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, would be stepping down as chairman in one year to concentrate on philanthropy and education. Ma named Daniel Zhang, a long trusted executive to lead his supercharged empire.

A former English teacher who turned 54 years old on Monday, Ma founded the Chinese e-commerce firm, Alibaba, in 1999 as an online platform that initially allowed businesses to sell products to each other online but soon morphed into China’s largest online retail market. Needless to say, almost two decades later, Alibaba is an internet juggernaut and Ma is among the world’s richest men, with a net worth of more than $40 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, he has created his own eponymous foundation, the Jack Ma Foundation that focuses on education. In an interview with Bloomberg TV last week, he had hinted at his retirement plans, saying he wanted to follow in the footsteps of  Bill Gates, one of the world’s most generous philanthropists. 

“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, an ardent admirer of Gates, said in the interview. He had also expressed his passion for teaching and is preparing philanthropy plans at his foundation for the coming years.

Ma, whose Chinese name is Ma Yun, has often described himself as something on an accidental entrepreneur. The Alibaba Group, headquartered in his hometown of Hangzhou, includes Tmall.com for business-to-consumer transactions and Taobao, China’s most popular online consumer marketplace, with hundreds of millions of products and services listed.

In 2014, Alibaba officially became one of the largest public offering in history with its IPO valued at $25 billion. That was a wakeup call about an emerging wave of technology giants in China’s state-dominated economy, believe experts. Under the ticker ”BABA” at the New York Stock Exchange, the e-commerce created history, having a market capitalization of roughly $219.8 billion, according to FactSet.

Ma has often being compared with Steve Jobs, owing to his obsession with innovation, charm and spiritualism, has time and again proved his mettle in the online retailing space. For example, it has used instant online micro-loans to grow its vendor base and get around inefficiencies in China’s financial markets. A blog post mentions “On Taobao, you find live scorpions, rental boyfriends or Tibetan Yak testicles and more bizarre…”

The company has now become a player in online payments and films, and it has been pouring investment into an array of ventures, including brick-and-mortar retail, cloud computing, meal delivery and advertising. It owns a stake in China’s hugely popular Twitter-like Weibo platform, and in 2015 it started the South China Morning Post newspaper. The company has transformed how Chinese people shop and pay - through its popular Alipay digital payment service.

“He put a human face on technology, and took China onto the global stage, not as a state-owned enterprise, crucially,” said Duncan Clark, managing director at Beijing tech advisory BDA and author of Alibaba: The House that Jack Built.

Ma will give up the chairman role in exactly one year on September 10th, 2019, and complete his current term on Alibaba’s board of directors following the company’s annual general meeting in 2020, the company said. He relinquished the role of chief executive in 2013. 

Zhang has been chief executive since 2015 after serving as chief operating officer and is known as a key architect of Alibaba’s “Singles Day”, the November 11th event that has become the world’s largest online shopping event. More recently, he is credited with driving the partnership with Starbucks to deliver coffee, dealing a blow to rival Tencent.

Zhang will have another year to adust to learn the ropes from Ma. It now remains to be seen how efficiently Zhang can step out of Ma’s enormous shadow and retain and grow the Alibaba empire built by a cult leader like Ma.