Jack Ma is stepping down as executive chairman of Alibaba, the ecommerce group he founded nearly 20 years ago that is now China’s most valuable company, with an equity value of about $420bn.
Alibaba, together with rival Tencent, has changed the way people work, play and pay in China — and in the process created some of the world’s richest men and women. Mr Ma has a net worth of more than $40bn according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Alibaba, like its global tech peers, has humble beginnings and vast aspirations. It launched the world’s then biggest initial public offering in 2014 and expects the value of goods sold on its platform will be equal to size of the world’s fifth-largest economy, by 2036.
Mr Ma told The New York Times, which first reported the news, that his retirement was “the beginning of an era”, and he would focus more of his energies on education. “I love education,” he said.
Alibaba, however, has been less impacted than Tencent, which has lost one-third of its equity value since its January share-price peak.
Last month Alibaba reported a 61 per cent increase in revenues year on year for the quarter to end-June, to Rmb80.9bn ($12bn), although net income fell, dented by a one-off cost related to share options.
Mr Ma, a former English teacher, began Alibaba in a single room and proceeded to push eBay, then its chief rival, out of the country. Ecommerce has since become the cash machine that has helped finance operations in movies, cloud and payments, as well as a string of global investments.
The rise of Alibaba has not been without controversy. Mr Ma angered Yahoo, then a major shareholder, when he carved out the payments operations — now known as Ant Financial and valued at $150bn at its last funding round — without consultation.
There was also a rare public spat with a Chinese regulator shortly after Alibaba’s 2014 listing, over counterfeits being sold on its ecommerce platform.
Mr Ma, 53, stands out from many of his fellow Chinese tech founders. He lacks an engineering background and spends much of his time crossing the globe for both business and philanthropic endeavours.
Some liken his role to an unofficial soft power ambassador — meeting heads of state, talking to packed-out meetings at Davos. This can cause consternation: he irked President Xi Jinping when he met Donald Trump, then US president-elect, before Mr Xi.
At home, Alibaba — like its peers — has changed the way people work. Millions now run their own shops selling goods on its Taobao ecommerce platform or stream their own videos on its entertainment platforms.
Taobao is estimated to have created almost 37m jobs in China, according to a study last year by Renmin University’s School of Labour and Human Resources.
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