Alibaba investments reshape the company ahead of US listing

More than HK$20 billion in investments since the founder stepped down as chief executive last year have reshaped the mainland e-commerce giant

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 2:28am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 7:09am

With its initial public offering slated for the United States, Alibaba is likely to surprise investors by the extent to which its operations have been transformed by more than 16 billion yuan (HK$20.2 billion) in investments since lead founder Jack Ma Yun stepped down as chief executive last year.

Ma, the charismatic English teacher-turned-entrepreneur who started the Hangzhou-based e-commerce firm in 1999, revealed the leadership change in January last year days after announcing the firm's reorganisation into 25 business units.

Those moves first fuelled speculation that Ma was laying the groundwork for Alibaba's flotation, which the company denied at the time. Ma kept his seat as executive chairman and focused on strategy.

Before Jonathan Lu Zhaoxi, who headed the Taobao online retail platforms at Alibaba, succeeded Ma as chief executive in May, the group looked to be well advanced in its strategic investment plans as part of a bold corporate makeover.

People are dying to delve into the financial details ... to see just how big Alibaba is
Eric Jackson, Ironfire Capital

Ricky Lai, a research analyst at Guotai Junan International, said Alibaba's investments "would certainly help boost its valuation" when the company's initial share sale pushed forward.

Alibaba is valued at US$153 billion, according to the average of 10 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

At an event in March last year, Ma acknowledged that Alibaba "needs some luck" to develop its mobile expertise and stay competitive against Shenzhen-based Tencent, Asia's largest internet company.

The following month, Alibaba forged a strategic alliance that could help shorten its learning curve in the mobile space.

Through a wholly owned subsidiary, the company agreed to invest US$586 million for an 18 per cent stake in Weibo, the Twitter-like microblogging service owned by Nasdaq-listed Sina, a leading online media company headquartered in Shanghai.

Weibo filed for a listing in the US at the weekend, seeking to raise US$500 million.

In May, Alibaba helped form the Cainiao Network Technology consortium with retailer Yintai, conglomerate Fosun International and various courier services providers. This enterprise will invest as much as 100 billion yuan over the next five to eight years to build a nationwide logistics infrastructure to support the mainland's fast-growing online shopping market.

Alibaba owns 43 per cent of the consortium with an investment of 2.15 billion yuan.

The firm - through Zhejiang Alibaba E-commerce, the parent of online payment affiliate Alipay - beefed up its financial services operations in October after buying a controlling 51 per cent stake in Tianhong Asset Management for 1.18 billion yuan. Alipay and Tianhong had launched the popular online investment service Yu E Bao in June.

In December, Alibaba accelerated efforts to expand its logistics capabilities under a three-part deal, worth a total of HK$4.13 billion, with Hong Kong-listed Haier Electronics. Alibaba agreed to buy a 10 per cent stake in Haier's logistics arm, Goodaymart, for HK$1.86 billion.

Alibaba also agreed to subscribe to a 2 per cent stake in Haier for HK$964.8 million and acquire a HK$1.31 billion convertible bond in Haier that could be converted into Haier shares at HK$19.334 each in three years.

In January, Alibaba made its foray into mobile games official by announcing a generous revenue-sharing plan for developers that trumps those of market leader Tencent.

That month, the group joined Yunfeng Capital, a mainland private equity firm co-founded by Ma, to take a controlling stake in Citic 21CN, a loss-making drug data firm, for HK$1.33 billion. The investment was made to tap into Citic 21CN's vast pool of pharmaceutical product data. Alibaba's business-to-consumer shopping portal operates an online pharmacy that hosts flagship online stores from more than 80 major drugstore chains.

Early this month, Alibaba may have put the cherry on top of its layer cake of acquisitions when it agreed to take over ChinaVision Media for HK$6.24 billion.

With a 60 per cent stake in ChinaVision, Alibaba gains entry into a raft of new endeavours, including production and distribution of films and television drama programmes, satellite television advertising, mobile digital content delivery, and the print media business.

"Alibaba has plans to play a more significant role in the media industry," said Sandy Shen, a director for consumer services at research firm Gartner.

The big bets made by Alibaba have made investors keen to see how much the company has been transformed. Eric Jackson, the president of hedge fund Ironfire Capital, said in a Bloomberg report: "People are dying to delve into the financial details of the business, which will be contained within the IPO filing, to see just how big Alibaba is and how fast it's growing."

Alibaba posted US$2.8 billion in net income and revenue of US$6.7 billion in the year to September, according to quarterly filings by Yahoo, which owns 24 per cent of the company.