Jack Ma — the charismatic and sometimes goofy miracle man who built Alibaba Group — might have stepped down from the pinnacle of e-commerce, but his presence will be felt for some time.
If he has his way, at least another 82 years.
As planned, Ma officially stepped aside as executive chairman on Tuesday, handing the baton to longtime lieutenant Daniel Zhang, who has been chief executive officer for four years. And Ma went out with a big performance on his 55th birthday, dressed up like a rock star at a stadium-sized event with employees, walking off the stage with plans to return to an earlier love — education.
Zhang is more reserved than his predecessor, but seen as the operator who helped bring Ma’s sweeping vision to global scale, facilitating the sale of $853 billion worth of goods in China last year with 654 million active annual customers.
Alibaba has a handy lead in the Chinese e-commerce market, which the company noted represents nearly 55 percent of the global market, according to eMarketer.
But Alibaba is more than an e-commerce platform that connects buyers with sellers, but a whole ecosystem that includes digital media, entertainment, logistics, payments, marketing services, clouding computing, local services, retail and more. In China alone, Alibaba said it directly and indirectly employs about 40 million people.
The company, which was founded in 1999 with just 18 people in Ma’s apartment, has grown quickly and proven to be both adaptable and steadfast to Ma’s vision.
And Ma, who plays on the global scale, meeting presidents and thinkers, has always been seen as looking ahead.
“Today is not about the retirement of Jack Ma, but the beginning of a legacy of succession,” Ma said at Tuesday’s celebration. “It’s not about the choice of an individual, but the success of a system.
“It is not easy to be a strong company, but it’s harder to be a good company,” he said. “A strong company is defined by its performance, but a good company stands for accountability, responsibility and kindness.”
Ma’s goal is to have the company straddle three centuries, lasting at least 102 years.
He said the company’s most important decisions have had nothing to do with money.
“Behind each of our decisions — the technology we invest, the products we create — we consider whether they can solve society’s problems, whether they are driven by our mission, vision and values,” he said. “The future of Alibaba is not about showing how we can make money for 102 years, but to prove that we can take on 102 years’ worth of responsibility.”
That approach, however, has made Ma a very rich man. He ranks as number 21 on Forbes’ rich list with a fortune of $37.3 billion, and will remain a director at the company and a lifetime member of the Alibaba partnership.
Now Alibaba is moving forward with a little less Ma, and to help keep it focused, it updated its values and reaffirmed its mission, which is “To make it easy to do business anywhere.”
Alibaba’s code has been tweaked before, but its first value — which asserts, “customer first, employees second, shareholders third” — has not changed.
The other values meant to carry the company through the rest of this century are:
• Trust makes everything simple.
• Change is the only constant.
• Today’s best performance is tomorrow’s baseline.
• If not now, when? If not me, who? (A tag line intended to help employees see themselves as owners).
• Live seriously, work happily.
Thomas Chong, a Jefferies equity analyst, said Alibaba “has shown strong execution over the past year with a clear strategy ahead. With a well-established organizational structure, culture, governance and talent system, we consider Alibaba a sustainable growth story with a synergistic ecosystem and believe it is well-positioned to ride the consumption upgrade theme in China.