The Alibaba group, cofounded by Jack Ma, is one of the largest tech companies in the world. (Reuters: Valery Sharifulin/TASS)
Jack Ma, China’s richest man, will celebrate his 55th birthday today by stepping down from his role as chairman of multi-billion-dollar e-commerce giant Alibaba.
- Jack Ma announced his plans to step down on his 55th birthday last year, on his 54th birthday
- Alibaba employs more than 100,000 people and is worth $671 billion
- He is expected to spend more time in philanthropy and education
Mr Ma cofounded the Alibaba Group in 1999 and under his leadership, the Chinese retail giant grew to become one of the largest and most valuable tech companies in the world and Asia’s most valuable listed company, and has revolutionised the way millions of Chinese nationals shop.
The company is often compared to online retail giant Amazon, however the American company pales in comparison to Alibaba’s extravagant shopping event which last year included performances by Mariah Carey and Cirque du Soilel.
Catalysed by Alibaba’s digital commerce platforms, the annual Chinese shopping holiday known as Singles Day became the world’s biggest retail event with consumers splurging a record 213.5 billion yuan ($42.4 billion) in sales during its 24-hour Sunday November 11 sale in 2018.
It is also leading digital innovation in China alongside its vast distribution networks, which include the string of new-age interactive “Hema” supermarkets, where customers could pay with facial recognition technology linked to their Alipay accounts.
The resignation plan announced by Mr Ma last year, on his 54th birthday, was perceived as unusual as it is rare for a founder of such a big and transformative tech firm to retire this early.
“Those who know me know that I do not like to sit idle,” Mr Ma wrote in the open letter last year.
“The world is big, and I am still young, so I want to try new things — because what if new dreams can be realised?!
“The one thing I can promise everyone is this: Alibaba was never about Jack Ma, but Jack Ma will forever belong to Alibaba.”
Alibaba employs over 100,000 people, has expanded into financial services, cloud computing and artificial intelligence and has a current market capitalisation of $US460 billion ($671 billion).
After his resignation, Mr Ma, who has a net worth of $US38.6 billion ($56.3) according to Forbes, is set to spend more time on philanthropy and education.
‘Marriage KPIs’ and a farewell with a bang later today
Mr Ma will hold centre stage at his farewell party in the 80,000 capacity Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre stadium to the accompaniment of music and celebrity performances.
Attendees will be hoping to get clues on how Alibaba will be run under his handpicked successor, Daniel Zhang.
An accountant by trade, soft-spoken Alibaba chief executive Mr Zhang marks a stark contrast to Mr Ma, whose flamboyant style and charismatic leadership made him the most recognised Chinese entrepreneur since he founded the company 20 years ago in a small shared apartment in Hangzhou city in eastern China.
The e-commerce giant has revolutionised may millions of Chinese nationals shop. (Reuters: Brendan McDermid)
Mr Ma has said he will remain a member of Alibaba’s partnership in a corporate governing group of 38 individuals that is separate from the board of directors.
He is leaving Mr Zhang with the daunting task of steering the multi-billion-dollar company at a time when the market for its core e-commerce business has slowed sharply.
One of Mr Zhang’s major challenges will be finding new areas of growth as China’s e-commerce sector matures, analysts have maintained.
“If Alibaba wants to find new innovations or trends, this is going to be more difficult than before,” Liu Yiming, an analyst at Chinese tech publishing group 36kr, said.
The story of Ma’s success from an English teacher to the country’s richest man has become legend in China and gives him almost cult-like status.
Mr Ma is known for his flamboyant style, which includes throwing larger-than-life company events including lavish mass weddings — which he presides over — for his employees and their families.
Earlier this year, he drew ire and sparked a nationwide debate about work culture in China when he urged tech company employees to work a 996 schedule — six days a week from 9:00am to 9:00pm.
He then caused further controversy by caveating that declaration by adding that a balanced home life is all about 669 — flipping the numbers in a reference to the amount of times couples should have sex to maintain a work-life balance.
“The KPI of marriage is to have results,” he was quoted on the Alibaba Weibo account. “What is the product? To have children.”
While it remains to be seen how Alibaba will be steered by Mr Zhang, tonight’s retirement extravaganza promises to offer a spectacle and possibly a final opportunity for Mr Ma to display showmanship.
Jack Ma will hold a farewell party in an 80,000 capacity stadium in Hangzhou. (Weibo: Sina Technology)
At previous company events, he dressed up as Michael Jackson or a punk rocker and performed musical numbers.
“I expect a long, long ceremony with Jack showing up at the end — in dramatic style, of course,” says one Alibaba employee.
“And plenty of people with their computers out working.”