Jack Ma sets sights on life after Alibaba

If Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma were to leave the company, it would remain controlled by its partnership structure, a system which he says will "make the company last long".
If Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma were to leave the company, it would remain controlled by its partnership structure, a system which he says will "make the company last long".PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

China's richest man turns to philanthropy with foundation focused on education

Mr Jack Ma, China's richest man, is laying the groundwork for a future away from Alibaba Group Holding, the company he co-founded and turned into an e-commerce juggernaut.

In an interview with Bloomberg TV, the Alibaba chairman said he is dedicating more of his time and fortune to philanthropy with the creation of a foundation in his own name focused on education, following in the footsteps of fellow billionaire Bill Gates.

Mr Ma, who turns 54 on Monday, has a net worth of more than US$40 billion (S$55 billion), according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

While Mr Ma sees himself as an accidental executive who entered the business world only with Alibaba's founding almost 20 years ago, he has become one of China's most recognised corporate leaders.

Even after stepping down as chief executive officer in 2013, the former English teacher remains the public face of a company with a market value of more than US$400 billion and interests spanning e-commerce and Hollywood film production as well as cloud computing and online payments.

"There's a lot of things I can learn from Bill Gates. I can never be as rich, but one thing I can do better is to retire earlier," Mr Ma said in the interview. "I think some day, and soon, I'll go back to teaching. This is something I think I can do much better than being CEO of Alibaba."

When asked if that could happen this year, he shrugged and smiled. He did not indicate if he would give away his money or put it into a trust as other billionaires have done. "You'll know very soon. I've prepared a Jack Ma Foundation," he said. "All these things that I've been preparing for 10 years."

RETIRING EARLIER THAN BILL GATES

There's a lot of things I can learn from Bill Gates. I can never be as rich, but one thing I can do better is to retire earlier. I think some day, and soon, I'll go back to teaching. This is something I think I can do much better than being CEO of Alibaba.

MR JACK MA

Mr Ma was born in September 1964 to traditional musician-storytellers living in Hangzhou, an ancient capital that has become a global high-tech hub and bastion of entrepreneurship, in part because of Alibaba's base there. He started Alibaba.com in 1999 as a business-to-business marketplace, backed by US$60,000 from 18 co-founders.

With savvy deals and an investment from SoftBank Group Corp, it has now morphed into a behemoth that can make or break brands. Its customers use its e-commerce platforms to order products that last year saw package deliveries reach 55 million a day.

 
 
 

Mr Ma also controls Ant Financial, the online financial platform that runs China's largest mobile payment system and money-market fund. The business has more than 870 million users via payment system Alipay and its affiliates.

Alibaba has one of the strongest management teams in corporate China and, even if he steps down, Mr Ma is likely to still have a role in setting top-level strategy, said Mr Brock Silvers, managing director of Kaiyuan Capital. "When Jack Ma speaks longingly of retirement from Alibaba, there's no reason not to take him at his word," said Mr Silvers. "On a day-to-day basis, Alibaba shareholders probably have little to fear should the charismatic Ma pull back a bit further."

A focus on education would not surprise keen followers of Mr Ma, who has spoken frequently of its importance to him and his shortcomings as a student, including failing China's national university exam twice. "I was not considered a good student but I improved; we keep on learning... So I want to devote most of my time to this," he said.

During his time as chairman, he has helped guide growth at home and overseas while also spearheading its 2014 initial public offering, the biggest ever. If he were to leave the company he founded in a Hangzhou apartment, it would remain controlled by its partnership structure, which enables a group of executives at Alibaba and affiliates to decide on board nominations.

"I have full confidence in my team and in the partner structure which lots of investors don't like," said Mr Ma. "It's the system which I think I have contributed to along with my team and this will be able to make the company last long."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2018, with the headline 'Jack Ma sets sights on life after Alibaba'. Print Edition | Subscribe