BEIJING • Mr Jack Ma, the charismatic co-founder of China's largest e-commerce firm Alibaba Group Holding, will step down as chairman in one year to concentrate on philanthropy and education, passing on the reins to trusted lieutenant Daniel Zhang.
Mr Ma, who turned 54 yesterday, has long flagged plans to step back, insisting that Alibaba management should be relatively young, and his retirement is not expected to affect the running of the firm.
However, it is very rare for a founder of a big and transformative technology firm, especially one with a cult-like status like Mr Ma, to retire so early.
"There is only Bill Gates who has done the same. No other tech founder in the world has just resigned like that at the top," said Mr Rupert Hoogewerf, Shanghai-based founder of the Hurun Report, which publishes an annual influential list of China's richest people.
In China, Mr Ma was a figure like no other, with friends ranging from movie stars to billionaire moguls, though he often outshone them all, he added.
Mr Ma will give up the chairman role on Sept 10 next year, and complete his current term on Alibaba's board of directors following the company's annual general meeting in 2020. He relinquished the role of chief executive in 2013.
Under his stewardship, Alibaba has seen consistent and sustainable growth for 13 consecutive quarters... Starting the process of passing the Alibaba torch to Daniel and his team is the right decision at the right time.
MR JACK MA, on relinquishing leadership of China's largest e-commerce firm to his trusted lieutenant Daniel Zhang.
Mr Zhang, 46, has been chief executive since 2015 after serving as chief operating officer, and is known as a key architect of Alibaba's "Singles Day", the Nov 11 event that has become the world's largest online shopping event. Mr Zhang, a former accountant, will continue as CEO.
"Under his stewardship, Alibaba has seen consistent and sustainable growth for 13 consecutive quarters... Starting the process of passing the Alibaba torch to Daniel and his team is the right decision at the right time," Mr Ma said in a letter released by the company.
A former English teacher with no technical background, Mr Ma co-founded Alibaba in 1999 with 17 others, and is now one of China's richest people with a net worth of US$36.6 billion (S$51 billion), according to Forbes. Alibaba, founded at a time when the industry was still dominated by state-owned firms and entrepreneurship was seen as a risky career path, has grown to have over 66,000 full-time employees and a market value of US$420 billion.
"He put a human face on technology and took China onto the global stage, not as a state-owned enterprise, crucially," said Mr Duncan Clark, managing director of Beijing tech advisory BDA and author of Alibaba: The House That Jack Built.
Mr Ma is also known for his eccentric personality and has donned wigs and costumes to perform highly choreographed pop routines at company events. Last year, he starred alongside Chinese action star Jet Li in a short gongfu film.
In the letter yesterday, Mr Ma said he had been planning his exit for 10 years, and had previously said he wanted the firm to last 102 years, choosing a specific number to motivate employees.
After he steps down, he will continue to mentor management as part of the Alibaba Partnership, a 36-member group of core managers. The group has the ability to nominate the majority of directors on the company's board.
Since handing over the CEO role, Mr Ma, who is married with three children, has focused on philanthropy and promoting Alibaba globally. In 2014, he and co-founder Joe Tsai set up a charitable trust focusing on the environment and health, funded by share options they own that were about 2 per cent of Alibaba's equity at the time.
Last year, Mr Ma invested 300 million yuan (S$60 million) in a rural education project in China. He has also established a scholarship programme in Newcastle, Australia.