Of all the billionaires in the world today, it would be hard to find anyone as universally popular and widely respected as Jack Ma, who stepped down as Chairman of Alibaba this week after amassing a US$41.8 billion fortune whilst creating Alibaba, the largest e-commerce firm in the world and the brand which most business people link to the rise of modern China. According to Bloomberg, “since taking over as executive chairman in 2013, Alibaba’s revenue has surged about 1,100% to 378.8 billion yuan ($56.2 billion) in the year ended March 2019.”
We all have very short memories these days and it shouldn’t be forgotten that only twenty years ago, in the height of the ‘dot com era’, many commentators were very sceptical about whether internet companies would ever make money. In this interview with the BBC, the reporter was somewhat dismissive to a young-looking Jack Ma asking “How will you make money on the internet and why should anyone wonder about it, if it’s not making money?” and “Can you see why people think it’s so much hot air? You don’t make any money. You’ve got extraordinary claims, and yet you make nothing”. It’s well worth watching Jack Ma’s youthful response in the face of this aggressive onslaught to see how far he has come personally over the last 20 years, and how much the world has changed in that time.
My brother, Dan, who was Spokesperson to the President of the UN General Assembly, met Jack Ma at the UN in New York in 2017, so it seems appropriate and timely to honour them both with this photo:
From Jack to Daniel
Now, there are some fascinating changes going on at Alibaba with a new Chairman, Daniel Zhang, taking over the reins with a plan to transform a business which is already regarded as one of the most innovative in the world. In an interview with Bloomberg, he says “Every business has a life cycle, If we don’t kill our existing business, someone else will. So I’d rather see our own new businesses kill our existing business.”
Aged only 47, Daniel Zhang is one of the first in a new generation of Chinese business leaders whose 25 year business career matches the rise and opening up of modern China. According to Bloomberg, he “is slight and soft-spoken, often proceeding haltingly in English during calls with investors. Even in China, he’s largely unknown. At Alibaba headquarters, an employee’s parent mistook him for the janitor”.
But don’t be fooled. He is credited with the turnaround of Tmall and the success of Singles Day at Alibaba, and he has thrived in the position of CEO for the past 5 years under the wing of his high profile predecessor, so watch out for more innovation at Alibaba as the new man carves out his own legacy.