Alibaba Group, China's largest e-commerce firm, yesterday named Jonathan Lu Zhaoxi as its new chief executive effective from May 10, replacing founder Jack Ma Yun. Ma, who announced in January that he would step down as chief executive, will remain executive chairman of the Hangzhou-based company. The ascendancy of Lu, 43, may be this year's most anticipated chief executive appointment apart from the Vatican's search for a new pope, since Alibaba is widely speculated to be preparing an initial public offering. The IPO is projected to be the global internet industry's biggest since Facebook went public last year. Lu will oversee a budding e-commerce conglomerate made up of 25 business units after its restructuring is completed, up from seven units at present. He will also help lead a group of mainland investors, including private equity firms and major express delivery companies, in providing 100 billion yuan (HK$125 billion) to fund the first phase of an elaborate domestic logistics network. This infrastructure is expected to be able eventually to support up to 10 trillion yuan in annual online sales. "We live in an era of rapid change, where pressures and challenges coexist, but we must not forget our purpose and keep in mind the premise of 'Customer First'," Lu said. Ma, in an e-mail to Alibaba's more than 24,000 employees worldwide, said Lu has "contributed to building our culture and organisation, and developed many talented people" during the 13 years they had worked together. Lu served as president of Taobao, the mainland's market leader in online shopping, and stepped in as chief executive of Alibaba.com when it was rocked by the discovery of fraudulent trades. He now serves as Alibaba's chief data officer and the president of the Aliyun Mobile operating system subsidiary. His first day as Alibaba's chief executive will coincide with the 10th anniversary of the flagship Taobao operations. He holds an MBA from the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. Compared with Ma, 48, Lu has cultivated a low profile outside Alibaba. Ma, a former English teacher turned internet entrepreneur, is expected to focus on mentoring the group's young staff. Eric Qiu Lin, an analyst at Guosen Securities, said Lu's experience made him the most appropriate choice as chief. Senior finance executives at Alibaba last week held private discussions in Hong Kong with Zheng Yeeli Hua, the chief representative in China for Nasdaq OMX, operator of the Nasdaq Stock Market. Sources said the meeting signified Alibaba's intention to consider other venues for its IPO, besides Hong Kong. Research published last month by Morgan Stanley suggested that an IPO by Alibaba this year would value it at US$80 billion.