Long march to success

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 July, 2011, 12:00am


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It's a 10-minute drive from the West Lake to the strikingly modern headquarters of Hangzhou's most famous global company. Alibaba occupies a new cluster of buildings in a campus-style setting with communal gardens and giant screens featuring a traditional Chinese 'cracked ice' design.

It's from here that Jack Ma oversees the operations of one of the world's largest online businesses, which serves more than 65 million members in 240 countries and cities.

The 46-year-old Hangzhou native harnessed the power of the internet to connect Chinese manufacturers of everything, from audio equipment to zippers, to the global marketplace, while reaping huge rewards for himself and his investors.

Subsidiaries include China's biggest online retail website, Taobao, and China Yahoo.

Ma, undoubtedly the most famous businessman from Hangzhou, has come a long way since his teenage days when he used to walk for 40 minutes to the Shangri-La Hotel to look for foreign visitors with whom to speak English.

Ma was neither a good student - he twice failed his university entrance exams - nor did he come from an influential family. His father worked in a photographic shop before becoming head of a dramatic arts association, while his mother was a garment factory worker.

His entrepreneurial instincts really came to the fore during the five years he spent as an English teacher at a local electronics college.

Ma made use of his proficiency in English to start up a translation agency and began to develop contacts with foreign companies venturing into the mainland.

That led to a trip to the United States in 1995 and the moment that changed his life completely - the first time he saw a computer.

From then on, he made it his mission to propel China into the internet age. He managed to scrape together US$2,000 to establish China Pages, a company that hosted websites for mainland businesses. Later, he became head of information for a new e-commerce venture set up under the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation.

Alibaba was born in 1999 when Ma gathered 18 friends in his Hangzhou apartment and persuaded them to stump up a total of US$60,000 to launch an international online marketplace to connect China's small and medium-sized enterprises to overseas buyers.

The company quickly grew to become the biggest business-to-business website in the world. In 2005, Yahoo invested US$1 billion for a 40 per cent stake and, in 2007 was listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange, raising US$1.7 billion.

Last month, Ma was caught up in a controversy over the transfer of the ownership of Alipay online payment technology to one of his private companies without the approval of Alibaba's board of directors.

He says Hangzhou has given him and Alibaba the support they need. 'Alibaba will be Hangzhou's Alibaba forever,' he stresses.

He says the beauty of Hangzhou has inspired him in many ways. 'Many of Alibaba's decisions resulted from discussions I had with others by the West Lake. The West Lake and the teahouses can offer people a lot of inspiration.'

Ma ranks his home city as one of the best in China and points out that if you have been to Beijing or Shanghai, but not Hangzhou, you have not been to China.

The billionaire businessman is proud of his roots. 'Some people complain that Hangzhou is too relaxing, while others think I don't look like a Hangzhou person because it is such a relaxing place. But I am really made in Hangzhou.'