NEW YORK — Alibaba Group finally made its move.
This story first appeared in the May 7, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The Web giant — which generated $248 billion in merchandise sales in China last year — officially submitted paperwork for what’s expected to be a blockbuster initial public offering on Wall Street this year.
The registration statement, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, showed a sprawling 15-year-old company that is still largely focused on the Chinese market, but has an expansive view of its place in the world of commerce.
“Our mission is to make it easy to do business anywhere,” the company said in its filing. “Our founders started our company to champion small businesses, in the belief that the Internet would level the playing field by enabling small enterprises to leverage innovation and technology to grow and compete more effectively in the domestic and global economies.”
Alibaba operates Taobao, a marketplace that can be likened to eBay, business-to-consumer site Tmall.com and group buying marketplace Juhuasuan.
The company also has ties with Alipay, which offers payment and escrow services for buyers and sellers.
“Given the scale we have been able to achieve, an ecosystem has developed around our platform that consists of buyers, sellers, third-party service providers, strategic alliance partners and [minority-held] companies,” Alibaba said. “Our ecosystem has strong, self-reinforcing network effects that benefit our marketplace participants, who are invested in our ecosystem’s growth and success.”
The filing said the company planned to raise $1 billion in the offering, but that figure is a placeholder and it remains to be seen just how much of the company will be floated on the open market, at what price and when the IPO will be held. Experts believe the IPO could value the company at more than $200 billion and raise more than $15 billion.
In comparison, Facebook was valued at $104 billion at its IPO.
The offering could triple the size of Alibaba’s current treasure chest — which includes cash, cash equivalents and short-term investments of $7.88 billion — and add on billions of dollars worth of stock to wheel and deal for new businesses.
Alibaba gets most of its revenues from merchants though online marketing services, commissions on transactions and fees for online services.
For the nine months ended Dec. 31, Alibaba posted profits of $2.82 billion on revenues of $6.51 billion — $5.66 billion of which came from the company’s China commerce division.
Alibaba’s marketplaces in China counted 231 million active buyers in the quarter ended Dec. 31, up 44 percent from a year earlier.
The company is in a prime position to capitalize on the growth potential of China, where real consumption made up 36.5 percent of gross domestic product last year, versus 66.8 percent in the U.S., according to Euromonitor.
Alibaba also noted that China had some 302 million online shoppers last year and 500 million mobile users, citing research from the China Internet Network Information Center.
“China’s offline retail market faces significant challenges due to few nationwide brick-and-mortar retailers, an underdeveloped physical retail infrastructure, limited product selection and inconsistent product quality,” Alibaba said. “These challenges in China’s retail infrastructure, which we believe are particularly acute outside of tier-one and -two cities, are causing consumers to leapfrog the offline retail market in favor of online and mobile commerce.”
The company, citing iResearch, said online shopping accounted for just 7.9 percent of total consumption in the country and would see a compounded annual growth rate of 27.2 percent through 2016.
To take advantage of this, Alibaba plans to increase the number of active buyers who use its sites, expand the categories it offers, focus on mobile and build on its data and cloud computing technologies.
The company also wants to develop its cross-border business.
“Our international strategy is focused on leveraging natural cross-border linkages to our ecosystem,” Alibaba said. “For example, we will continue to grow our international business by connecting overseas branded retailers to Chinese consumers (Tmall Global), connecting Chinese suppliers to international retail markets (AliExpress) and international wholesale markets (Alibaba.com).”
Alibaba reportedly chose to file in the U.S. so executives could continue to control the company, while selling shares to outsiders.
Accordingly, the company established Lakeside Partners, named after the Lakeside Gardens where executive chairman Jack Ma lived and began the company with a group of founders.
The partnership has 28 members — 22 members of management and six managers from related companies — and will have the exclusive right to nominate for shareholder approval a majority of the board. If shareholders reject a nominee, the partnership has the right to nominate a different person.
“Our partnership is a dynamic body that rejuvenates itself through admission of new partners each year,” the company said. “Unlike dual-class ownership structures that employ a high-vote class of shares to concentrate control in a few founders, our approach is designed to embody the vision of a large group of management partners. This structure is our solution for preserving the culture shaped by our founders while at the same time accounting for the fact that founders will inevitably retire from the company.”
Ma owns 8.9 percent of the company, or 206 million shares — if the IPO values Alibaba at the projected amount, it would make him one of the world’s richest men.
The offering will also be a boon to Yahoo, which owns 22.6 percent of the company, or 523 million shares.