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Jack Ma, founder and outgoing chairman of Alibaba Group Holding. Photo: AP
Jack Ma, founder and outgoing chairman of Alibaba Group Holding. Photo: AP

Alibaba’s new boss: the finance veteran who shook things up quietly

Jack Ma will officially pass the baton to Daniel Zhang on his 55th birthday next year but remain on the board until 2020

Hong Kong: Stewardship of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, Asia’s most valuable company, is passing to a financial wizard who has led the company’s effort to drag the traditional retail industry into the 21st century.

Jack Ma will step down as executive chairman of Alibaba in 2019, handing the reins to Daniel Zhang, 46, who became chief executive officer (CEO) barely three years ago. Zhang has been the driving force behind a mandate to transform old-school commerce using technology dubbed “New Retail".

Since his ascension, the Shanghai-educated executive has proven a capable operator, designing and pulling off events such as the annual Singles’ Day shopping bonanza.

The company’s stock has risen 87% over his tenure and Alibaba now has a market value of about $420 billion, eclipsing WeChat operator Tencent Holdings Ltd.

The veteran chief financial officer (CFO) espouses a less flamboyant style than his charismatic boss, who dispenses folksy wisdom on the global conference circuit and hob-nobs with heads of states and celebrities.

Zhang currently sits on the board of Paytm Mall. His new role as chairman will put his direct attention on India.

Zhang’s appointment holds some irony: Ma often said he wasn’t fond of professional managers because of their focus on short-term performance.

Ma hired Zhang from Chinese gaming giant Shanda Interactive Entertainment Ltd in 2007—an episode Ma handled with kid gloves because Shanda’s founder, Chen Tianqiao, was a long-time friend.

Ma went to Tianqiao’s home for dinner and apologized in person for the recruitment.

“At the time, Alibaba was a smaller private company so it shows that Daniel is also a visionary," Tianqiao said in an interview on Monday.

Ma made the announcement on his 54th birthday, capping a storied two-decade career during which the former English schoolteacher built Alibaba into one of China’s most celebrated corporations, running eBay out of the country and relegating to the unfamiliar position of also-ran.

Along the way, he hived off a payments service in controversial fashion, creating the $150 billion online finance giant Ant Financial.

Zhang now has to steer China’s largest company abroad, where it has made headway in markets such as South-East Asia but remains alien to many Western consumers. He’ll enjoy unprecedented authority to do so, combining the chairman and CEO roles for the first time since Ma himself held the positions prior to 2013.

“Jack Ma said CFOs don’t make good CEOs, but Daniel is an exception," said Kim Eng Securities analyst Mitchell Kim. “The challenges will be how Alibaba can expand outside of Asia."

Zhang’s signature endeavour has been his drive to transform old-school shopping, using data analysis to manage inventory and shipping. That’s an effort which has driven more than $8 billion of deals in the span of several years. That effort caps a meteoric rise. Zhang joined Alibaba in 2007 as CFO of Taobao, when the consumer-to-consumer marketplace was fresh off a victory over Meg Whitman and eBay, but also battling a reputation for fakes. He proved his worth by turning Taobao Mall into Tmall, which sold higher-quality goods direct from branded merchants. That service later became instrumental in helping repair Alibaba’s image, and the US removed the company from its “Notorious Markets" list in 2012 (though it rejoined in 2016).

His elevation now ranks him a cut above a team of lieutenants who’ve stood by Ma for a decade or more.

A Mint staff writer contributed to this story.

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