Today, on his 54th birthday, Alibaba founder Jack Ma will announce a “succession plan” to kick off his gradual retirement.
After paving the way for an era of Chinese tech giants such as Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, and JD.com, Ma plans to leave his $420B company to return to his lifelong passion for education. But, Ma is also stepping away from ’Baba in a time of turmoil for China’s private sector.
From humble teacher to China’s baddest businessman
Ma began his career as an English teacher. But, when his online search for “beer” and “China” in 1995 yielded no results, he put his textbooks on the shelf to pursue a higher calling: Fixing the internet.
By expanding Alibaba from e-commerce to banking, cloud computing, digital media, and software, Ma built one of the 5 largest internet companies in the world. And to make it happen, he had to convince the Chinese government of the internet’s value.
A tech empire built on politics, not programming
Unlike other tech companies, Alibaba’s early obstacles were political, not technical. So Ma — who says he doesn’t really understand technology — led Alibaba as a charismatic politician, not a technical businessman.
Ma adopted a philosophy of “loving the government, but not marrying them” to grow Alibaba under the good graces of the government. With the government’s blessing, Alibaba now pulls in $40B in annual revenue.
But as Alibaba has grown, government has fought to stay involved — and thanks to the US-China trade war, Alibaba now feels more regulatory heat than ever.
Can Alibaba survive without Ma’s magic?
Ma has planned his departure for more than 10 years, but despite scaling back responsibility in 2013 by transitioning from CEO to executive chairman, Ma still manages many of Alibaba’s government relationships — making his exit challenging.
In spite of the New York Times report that Ma will retire immediately, Alibaba reps insist that Ma will pass off the reins slowly and remain chairman in transition — calling the NYT report “factually wrong.”
Ma is expected to outline his “succession plan” in greater detail today.