Jack Ma

Alibaba founder Jack Ma turns to pursuing cultural endeavours

Founder of Alibaba will pursue cultural and environmental endeavours now that he has handed over the reins of his company

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 July, 2013, 9:11am

Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma Yun has always been a media favourite, but he now says he'd like to disappear from public view and turn a new page in life to focus on "things that really interest" him.

"Commerce will only be a hobby," Ma, who stepped down as chief executive of the mainland's largest e-commerce company on May 10, told the South China Morning Post.

The self-made billionaire, formerly an English teacher in Hangzhou, is one of the most successful internet entrepreneurs in China, but he said "the Jack Ma era" is over now.

Ma said he now planned to devote himself to tasks that may not generate profit but will benefit society as a whole, like filmmaking, environmental protection and education.

Many were surprised in January when Ma revealed his plan to relinquish his role as Alibaba's chief executive. After all, he is only 48, and is the icon of the privately held firm he co-founded. With his high-profile and witty remarks, he is widely seen as a rare example of a Chinese entrepreneur: a person with charisma.

He and his team set up Alibaba in Hangzhou in 1999, with a business-to-business portal connecting small Chinese manufacturers. The firm grew rapidly in the following decade by linking the Chinese firms with overseas buyers.

The gross merchandise value of the firm's business-to-consumer online shopping site, and its consumer-to-consumer platform, Taobao Marketplace, reached 1.1 trillion yuan (HK$1.4 trillion) last year, more than eBay and Amazon combined. Ma simply attributes the success to good fortune.

"I did many correct things," he said. "It's just luck, not because I'm energetic, or capable."

He said that if his successor as chief executive, Jonathan Lu Zhaoxi, has the same good fortune, that would do. "My only wish is that he will be bestowed with luck," Ma said.

Shaking off the role of chief executive would give him the luxury of spending time on things he really wanted to do, Ma said, although that was not the reason he decided to step down. "I am no longer CEO because my not being CEO will benefit the company," he said.

He said in an e-mail to employees announcing his decision that "the internet belongs to young people". He said most of Alibaba's leaders, born in the 1960s, would also pass their responsibilities to colleagues born in the 1970s and 1980s. "We believe that they understand the future better than us, and have a better chance of grasping the future," Ma said.

Ma remains executive chairman of Alibaba, but he told the Post that there was no chance he would run the company again. "It's impossible for me to come back as CEO," he said. "But as the chairman, as its founder, I am here anytime if the company needs me."

Still, it's unrealistic to expect Ma to just stop, and he said he had found his "retirement" made his life even busier than before.

On May 28, just 18 days after he stepped down as Alibaba's chief executive, the e-commence giant announced that it would co-operate with a number of partners to establish a nationwide logistics network, with Ma heading the newly formed firm.

He is also investing in China's fast-growing movie industry and is the third largest shareholder of mainland studio Huayi Brothers. He is also China chairman of The Nature Conservancy, a job he accepted the day after he stepped down as Alibaba chief executive.

Ma said he was not attracted to the roles by the potential to make money. Instead, what motivated him was a belief that they were things that China needed for the future. "One issue facing China is that people's wallets are bulging but their heads are empty," he said.

"I will continue to invest in cultural projects."

Against his wishes, he might end up remaining in the spotlight, perhaps on an even bigger stage. An Alibaba initial public offering is expected to take place either at the end of this year or next year, with the median estimate of eight investment banks in February valuing the firm at US$62.5 billion, which could make it the most noteworthy IPO since Facebook's listing last year.

Given his belief in fate, Ma may just have to accept the fact that he has to stay in the spotlight.

When he was still a nobody, in 1995, the 1.62-metre-tall Ma appeared in a Hangzhou television show on his bicycle, confronting a group of men who were stealing well lids.

It was later revealed that the "crime" had been set up by the station, with Ma being the only person courageous enough to try to stop the "thieves".



October 15, 1964: Ma is born in Hangzhou, Zhejiang.

1988: Ma graduates from Hangzhou Normal University and teaches English and international trade at Hangzhou Dianzi University.

1991: Ma establishes Hope Translation Agency in Hangzhou, but is forced to sell small commodities to support the unprofitable agency.

1995: Ma, his wife and his partner He Yibin establish China Yellowpages, the first Chinese website to publish business information.

1997: Ma joins the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, where he helps establish several key websites for the ministry and starts to explore China's e-commerce market.

1999: Ma and 18 partners found Alibaba Group. The group raises US$25 million from SoftBank, Goldman Sachs, American Fidelity and other investment firms.

Alibaba establishes an international online business trading platform for small business, and its Chinese counterpart

2003: Ma founds Taobao, the biggest consumer-to-consumer online shopping platform in China, from his flat in Hangzhou.

2004: Alibaba launches Alipay, a third-party online payment platform.

2005: Alibaba forms a strategic partnership with Yahoo, acquires China Yahoo and becomes China's biggest internet company.

2007: Alibaba goes public in Hong Kong.

2008: Alibaba and Hangzhou Normal University found the Alibaba Business School and Ma becomes chairman of the school's board.

2009: Alibaba Cloud Computing is established on the 10th anniversary of the founding of Alibaba Group.

Time magazine includes Ma on its list of "The 100 Most Influential People in the World".

2011: Taobao is split into three independent companies: and

Alipay is split into four business groups.

May 10, 2013: Ma retires as Alibaba Group chief executive but remains chairman of the board.

May 28, 2013: Ma becomes chairman of the board of Cainiao Network Technology, a new company whose major shareholders include Alibaba Group.



I don't think [Alibaba] is an 'empire'. I always believe we shouldn't build an empire, instead, we should build an 'ecosystem'. Every empire will be toppled someday, but an ecosystem is sustainable.

Our technique, management, ideas, operation and personnel system are international, and we don't feel we are different from Amazon, eBay, Google and Facebook.

We want government support, but many current policies can't help. Innovation must go beyond the current system. The … innovation in the current system is not the real one, but a kind of improvement.

Innovation of this industry is always from other industries. Stones from other mountains may serve to polish the jade of this one.

It's impossible for me to come back as CEO. But as the chairman, as its founder, I am here anytime if the company needs me .

I made cruel decisions when thousands of Alibaba's customers were involved in fraud. As the CEO of a company, you have to do that. It's like Deng Xiaoping, the then top leader, had to make cruel decisions during the June 4 crackdown for the country's stability.

Even if the small fish unite, it's useless. In this world, things only work after big fish reach consensus.

The current issue facing China is that people's wallets are bulging but their heads are empty .