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Alibaba

Alibaba is the world’s biggest e-commerce group. Founded by Jack Ma, it owns Tmall.com and its consumer-to-consumer business Taobao.com.

Story of an ingenious rising star

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2007, 12:00am
 

At the age of 36, David Wei has accomplished what most executives hope to achieve in a lifetime


Three words spring to mind when it comes to describing David Wei: ingenious, brilliant and wunderkind.


In the past 15 years, Mr Wei has made his name in China, becoming one of the youngest senior management executives in the country.


Before he turned 30, the Shanghai native had already worked in a string of top jobs spanning managing director to chief financial officer and chief executive.


His move last November to China's largest e-commerce company, Alibaba.com, as president, was yet another landmark achievement on his relatively short but stellar resume.


And if his track record is anything to go by, his ascent in the e-commerce world will only be a question of time, just in the same way he seems to have proved himself in virtually all of his other roles.


In his new position, his focus is on making the online environment a place where buyers and sellers can complete all payments in virtual space, as well as providing online solutions that address the functional requirements of small and medium-sized businesses such as services in legal, finance and human resources.


His daily responsibilities centre around the strategic corporate level, and involve supervising the recruitment and management of staff to fuel the company's growing operations; setting the strategic direction of the business-to-business platform; finding creative ways to grow the portal's existing client pool; looking at how the company can best penetrate the e-commerce market more effectively; and facilitating an improved trading process.


At the age of 36, Mr Wei, a father of two, has accomplished what most senior executives hope to achieve in a lifetime.


It would be easy to surmise that he was some kind of child prodigy or a national maths whizz growing up.


But surprisingly, he said he was a normal child - impressionable just like any other young person, and fickle when it came to career choices.


'The perception I had towards my career when I was young was very vague. Just one film would be able to change my mind about what I wanted to do,' he said, recalling that when he saw actor Andy Lau Tak-wah in a movie about lawyers, he decided to become a lawyer.


Then, he considered journalism. And the list went on.


'I didn't have much of an idea at all, and I was quite easily influenced.'


It was perhaps his secondary school education - a boarding school dedicated to foreign language training - that in part, proved to be his default trump card, securing him a place among China's best and brightest. As an undergraduate studying international business management at the Shanghai International Studies University, he was hired as an intern at Shanghai International Securities (now known as Shenyin Wanguo Securities) to help translate the firm's annual report.


This was an ideal opportunity to showcase his language training, and the company's managing director was so impressed with Mr Wei's work, he promptly hired him as his personal assistant after he graduated.


Mr Wei was promoted twice over the next three years, first to manager, then to deputy managing director of asset management when he was just 25 years old.


'No one had any experience in the capital markets industry back then because it had just started in China. Everyone in the industry was young, and everybody had a chance,' he said.


'When things are new, you don't face so much bureaucracy and there are great opportunities. I went into investment banking because I got the chance to meet important people, think big and strategically and become equipped with financial knowledge,' he added.


Not one to rest on his laurels or get swept up by grand titles, Mr Wei felt his promotions had been too quick - even by his standards - so he decided to put the brakes on, and took a pay cut to join Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) to get more training.


It is this sense of humility and appetite for learning that would guide many of his later career choices.


'All my job moves have always been about [overcoming] the weaknesses in my background. I did the same when I joined [British-based home improvement retail group] B&Q and Alibaba, taking a pay cut because I wanted the experience,' he said. 'For me, it is not about how big the pay cheque is. I look at what I can learn from the job.


'The source of my motivation comes from enjoying what I am doing. I try and create value in my role and try to do a bit better every day.


'My mentor is everywhere. I respect and learn from every boss and peer I have ever worked for and with. I learn from my family and my wife. Learning is everywhere. You take 1 per cent from over here and there and then make yourself that much better.'


From the start, he believed the economy of the moment was China and he wanted to be present to make the most of its staggering growth opportunities. So when Coopers & Lybrand offered him the chance to relocate to London following his secondment there, he turned it down. Instead, he opted to become managing director and head of investment banking at Orient Securities.


But seven years in the investment banking industry and the limitations of corporate finance and banking began to show. Mr Wei realised that the typically small investment banking teams restricted the development of his management skills, and the advisory role which bankers played ended at the door of execution, which meant he could never get his teeth into the finer details of commerce.


Cautious and conservative, for four years, he pondered making a career switch. Finally, he moved into retail as chief financial officer for B&Q in China. He believed the labour-intensive nature of the business would afford him the break he needed to further hone his managerial skills.


Despite foraging in new terrain, he worked his magic again, and just a year later, became the company's CEO in China. During his seven-year tenure, Mr Wei expanded B&Q's stores to 55 from just five, and employed 12,000 staff in 23 Chinese cities. Turnover was also registering a staggering total of close to US$1billion a year.


No wonder the headhunters were pounding down his door, hoping they too could recruit him for their clients. But in the end, it was the curiosity of e-commerce that caught his interest. He spent a few years discussing with Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba whom he had known for seven years, the possible role he would play if he joined the operations.


'The biggest challenge is always people in both quantitative and qualitative terms,' said Mr Wei. Finding the right kind of people will prove particularly difficult given the huge numbers involved. The plan is to increase global headcount by more than 60 per cent to 5,500 employees by the end of this year.


If anyone can take on a task of this proportion, it is surely Mr Wei.


'Some people choose to implement a work-life balance on a daily basis. For me, I have chosen to do it over decades. I am not a workaholic. I love going to the beach and playing golf, but with the economic growth particularly in Asia now, I want to do and learn as much as I can. Perhaps I will semi retire once the economy turns bad,' he quipped.


MOVING UP


Road to success


Went to boarding school dedicated to foreign language training


Held a range of top senior management


jobs by the age of 30


Started career in securities firm as personal assistant to managing director


Believer in overcoming weaknesses in


his background


His biggest management challenge is people


Monthly Salary


Chief financial officer


HK$110,000 to HK$150,000


10 years of experience


Finance director


HK$50,000 to HK$85,000


Eight years of experience


Controller


HK$45,000 to HK$60,000


Seven years of experience


Finance manager


HK$35,000 to HK$56,000


Three years of experience


Source: Manpower


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