Jack Ma

Jack Ma hints at continued interest in Hong Kong listing for Alibaba

Alibaba founder's comments that he wants to improve city's understanding of his business has some suggesting deal may yet be done

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 October, 2013, 4:33am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 October, 2013, 5:55am

Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma Yun says he misjudged attitudes towards his company in his failed bid to sell shares in Hong Kong and that he wants to improve the understanding of his business in the city - a fresh sign to some that the potential HK$100 billion deal may yet be done here.

"I used to think I knew Hong Kong," Ma told reporters from the city invited to the firm's Hangzhou headquarters at the start of a fresh public relations campaign to try to rebuild the e-commerce giant's reputation in Hong Kong.

"But I noticed that we didn't do enough to make Hong Kong people understand what kind of company Alibaba is, nor have we done enough in understanding Hong Kong."

Alibaba's share sale plans collapsed when it became clear that Ma's determination to retain a controversial partnership structure at the top of the organisation was unacceptable to the Securities and Futures Commission.

The regulator says the partnership structure that gives a coterie of top executives the right to nominate a majority of the company's board members breaches the principle of "one shareholder, one vote", which underpins the city's securities laws.

Arguments put forward by Alibaba's advisers trying to sway public opinion veered from lauding the uniqueness of the firm's corporate culture to claims that Hong Kong's listing rules were relics of history not suited to firms in the internet age, and ultimately to pitting the city head-to-head with New York, all of which served to harden the stance of regulators and sour public opinion towards the company.

With those battle lines drawn, Alibaba chief executive Jonathan Lu Zhaoxi announced earlier this month that its Hong Kong listing plans had been abandoned. That was followed days later by an Alibaba spokesman saying both the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq had approved the partnership structure, although senior executives at the firm maintain that no listing venue has been chosen, nor have underwriters been appointed.

Lu fuelled speculation that the deal might still come to Hong Kong after the South China Morning Post on Friday reported him saying plans to list anywhere in the world had been dropped to allow the controversy over its corporate structure to cool down.

The Post reported last month that sources close to Alibaba had said there was no rush to float shares this year and that the real objective was to get a deal done by the end of 2015. If a deal was not done by then, it would mean a renegotiation of an agreement struck last year with major shareholder Yahoo over the terms under which the mainland firm could buy back some of the 24 per cent stake in Alibaba held by the US internet company.

A huge falling out with Yahoo in May 2011 is one reason why some potential investors are wary about Ma's desire to retain so much control over a listed entity, even though he and his top team own only about 10 per cent of the firm.

That was when it was disclosed that Ma had transferred Alipay, an online payment system created and owned by Alibaba, to a private company owned by Ma. Yahoo was outraged, but the two firms later resolved their differences.

Signs of movement on the listing issue emerged last week when Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing chief Charles Li Xiaojia wrote in his blog that "nonstandard shareholding structures" should be considered for "innovative companies". Ma said he had read the blog and saw it as an "active and positive" message.