HONG KONG • Alibaba's co-founder and executive chairman Jack Ma said he planned to step down from the Chinese e-commerce giant tomorrow to pursue philanthropy in education, a changing of the guard for the US$420 billion (S$580 billion) Internet company.
A former English teacher, Mr Ma started Alibaba in 1999, and built it into one of the world's most consequential e-commerce and digital payments companies, transforming how Chinese people shop and pay for things.
That fuelled his net worth to more than US$40 billion, making him China's richest man. He is revered by many Chinese, some of whom have put his portrait in their homes to worship in the same way that they worship the God of Wealth.
Mr Ma, who turns 54 tomorrow, is retiring as China's business environment has soured, with Beijing and state-owned enterprises increasingly playing more interventionist roles with companies.
"He's a symbol of the health of China's private sector, and how high they can fly whether he likes it or not," Mr Duncan Clark, author of the book Alibaba: The House Jack Ma Built, said of Mr Ma.
"His retirement will be interpreted as frustration or concern whether he likes it or not."
In an interview, Mr Ma said his retirement is not the end of an era but "the beginning of an era".
He said he would be spending more of his time and fortune focused on education. Sept 10 is Teacher's Day in China. "I love education," Mr Ma said.
He will remain on Alibaba's board of directors and continue to mentor the company's management.
For Alibaba, Mr Ma's retirement completes a transition of power to other executives. He stepped down as Alibaba's chief executive in 2013; the company's current chief executive is Mr Daniel Zhang, who is a candidate to succeed Mr Ma.
Yet Mr Ma had remained active as the face of the e-commerce firm, as well as an architect of its long-term strategy. He owns a 6.4 per cent stake in Alibaba, according to securities filings, but has considerably more sway over the company, thanks to its complicated legal structure.
A natural salesman and charismatic leader, Mr Ma co-founded Alibaba with 17 others - some of them his students - and US$60,000 in borrowed funds out of his apartment in Hangzhou in eastern Zhejiang province, in 1999.
Alibaba started as an online marketplace for businesses to sell their products to other businesses. But it did not take off until it began the Taobao marketplace in 2003, which merchants used to sell goods directly to consumers.
Alibaba later rolled out Alipay, an online payment service, to facilitate transactions in a country where few people had credit cards. Alipay later became Ant Financial, the financial subsidiary that Mr Ma also controls.
Today, Alibaba's empire encompasses e-commerce, online banking, cloud computing, digital media and entertainment - and even a corporate messaging service.
The company owns or holds stakes in some of China's most important media assets, including the Twitter-like social media site Weibo and the Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper, The South China Morning Post.
Last month, Alibaba reported a 60 per cent increase in quarterly sales, even as profits fell. The company's annual revenue totals about 250 billion yuan (S$50.5 billion).
While Alibaba has become dominant in China, it has faced a tougher time expanding internationally. The company has increased its presence outside China by investing in e-commerce and online finance companies in India and South-east Asia.
But its efforts to muscle into the United States have largely not been successful.