Alibaba reshuffles CFO, commerce heads as challenges grow

Alibaba is creating two Digital Commerce teams, one for international markets and another for the domestic market. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Alibaba Group Holding is replacing its long-standing chief financial officer and reshuffling the leaders of its commerce businesses, the most notable management changes since the Chinese firm survived a bruising antitrust investigation.

Mr Toby Xu will succeed Ms Maggie Wu as chief financial officer from April 1, the company said in a statement late on Sunday (Dec 5). Ms Wu will remain in the Alibaba Partnership and serve as executive director on the Internet giant's board, according to the statement.

Separately, Alibaba is creating two Digital Commerce teams, one for international markets, led by Mr Jiang Fan, and another for the domestic market, to be headed up by Ms Trudy Dai, the company said in a blog post.

Alibaba shares tumbled as much as 8.3 per cent in early Hong Kong trading on Monday, extending losses for the year to more than 50 per cent after Didi Global's plans to delist from the New York Stock Exchange sparked fresh concern about US-traded Chinese internet firms.

Alibaba is shaking up its management just as headwinds mount. After coughing up a record antitrust fine earlier this year, the online retailer has had to navigate closer regulatory scrutiny while fending off increased competition that forced it to cut its revenue outlook last month. In response to the rising challenges, chief executive Daniel Zhang is devolving some power to heads of the company's business units in a bid to make the divisions more agile, Dow Jones reported last month.

"We are focused on the long term, and succession within our management team on every occasion is always in the service of ensuring Alibaba will be stronger and better positioned for the future," Mr Zhang said in Sunday's statement.

Ms Wu has been with the Chinese online shopping firm for nearly 15 years and was instrumental in the company's listings in New York and Hong Kong. Her retreat is especially notable, given Ms Wu is one of the most prominent female executives in China's Internet sphere.

"The markets will always have ups and downs, but Alibaba has ambitious long-term goals," Ms Wu said in the statement. "We are in a relay race and we must have new generations of talent to take the company forward."

Her replacement, the 48-year-old Mr Xu, joined Alibaba three years ago from PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he worked after graduating from the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai, eventually making partner.

Since joining the e-commerce firm, Mr Xu has worked as a special assistant to CEO Zhang and participated in several deals for the company, including a partnership with Hong Kong-based retail giant Fung Group. He was appointed deputy CFO in July 2019 and is currently a director for Alibaba investees like Sun Art Retail Group and Lianhua Supermarket Holdings.

"The transition announced today is happening earlier than we expected," Citigroup analysts wrote in a note. "After a series of headline news over the past year, the next few years will be critical for Alibaba Group to prove its ability to recover from the macro slowdown and emerge even stronger operationally."

That recovery will rely largely on Alibaba's e-commerce businesses, which it is reorganizing. The International Digital Commerce unit will oversee the AliExpress logistics service, Alibaba.com as well as South-east Asian platform Lazada, Alibaba said on its website.

Mr Jiang, who will be responsible for growing Alibaba's overseas customer base of 285 million, joined Alibaba in 2013 and had overseen Taobao and Tmall, the company's main Chinese e-commerce platforms.

But the executive came under pressure last year due to a social media scandal that quickly escalated into Alibaba's worst public relations debacle at the time. The firm's handling of the case rankled government officials and raised concern over the growing influence of billionaire founder Jack Ma and Alibaba over public opinion, Bloomberg News has reported.

Now, Mr Jiang will be replaced at the all-important domestic business by Ms Dai, who was previously Alibaba's chief customer officer and had led units such as its industrial e-commerce businesses and the fast-growing community marketplace Taocaicai.

Ms Dai is taking the helm at the domestic e-commerce business, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of Alibaba's revenue, at a pivotal time. Alibaba is facing growing competition from rivals such as Pinduoduo, which has overtaken the larger firm in number of domestic consumers, as well as upstarts like ByteDance in areas like livestreamed e-commerce.

Its annual Singles' Day shopping bonanza this year posted the slowest-ever growth on record, as the company cut back on promotions and shifted its focus its philanthropy and sustainable initiatives to better align with Beijing's priorities.

"Although the transition was described as planned, it will raise eyebrows as Alibaba continues record levels of investment into new initiatives," said Michael Norris, an analyst with Shanghai-based consultancy AgencyChina.

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