Life after Jack Ma: meet the next generation of leaders who are commanding Alibaba’s troops
A key part of the management continuity lies in the Alibaba Partnership, set up in 2010 to ensure that the organisation was not overreliant on just one or two senior executives
Alibaba Group co-founder Jack Ma on Monday announced he would step down as executive chairman after one year, handing over the top job to current Alibaba chief executive Daniel Zhang.
The move comes as Alibaba looks to make way for “younger, more talented people” to take over leadership roles and fulfill the company’s vision “to make it easy to do business anywhere”, according to a letter from Ma to Alibaba staff, including the South China Morning Post, which Alibaba owns.
In a letter to employees in 2015, when Zhang was named the new chief executive, Ma wrote that “this marks a future where the [generation born after 1970] will command the troops at Alibaba Group!”
A key part of this spirit of continuity lies in the Alibaba Partnership, set up in 2010 to ensure that the organisation was not overreliant on just one or two senior executives.
Currently there are 36 partners, with new members nominated by their peers. Executives who join the partnership must have worked for at least five years at Alibaba or its affiliates like Ant Financial, with a proven track record of contributing to the group’s business.
Here are some of Alibaba’s next-generation leaders:
1. Trudy Dai Shan, 42, president of Wholesale Marketplaces at Alibaba
Year joined: 1999
Nom de guerre: Su Quan – a character in the well-known Chinese novel The Deer and the Cauldron, also known as The Duke of Mount Deer. Su was the wife of Hong Antong, the leader of the Mystic Dragon Cult, and is known for her martial arts prowess.
Dai was one of the 18 founding members of Alibaba in 1999, and one of 12 women partners in the Alibaba Partnership. As president of wholesale marketplaces she oversees the group’s B2B marketplaces.
A Hainan native, Dai graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Hangzhou Institute of Electricial Engineering, and was one of Ma’s students when he was still a teacher. When Ma approached her with his idea to start Alibaba, she said yes without hesitation.
When Alibaba was first established, Dai worked as a customer service officer together with fellow co-founder Lucy Peng -now chief executive at Lazada, Alibaba's Southeast Asian e-commerce subsidiary - and would put in up to 18 hours each day answering customer queries. On particularly long days, Dai would spend the night in the office with a sleeping bag. She earned just 500 yuan a month back then, and survived on 3-yuan mealboxes.
“If the company requests that I do sales, I’ll do sales. If it’s customer service, I’ll do that as well. No need to think too much, I’ll just happily do the work,” she was quoted as saying earlier in her career at the company.
Dai served as chief customer officer from June 2014 to January 2017, and senior vice-president of human resources and chief people officer from 2009 to 2014. She also had a brief stint as vice-president of human resources of China Yahoo! in 2006 before returning to Alibaba.
2. Judy Tong Wenhong, 48, Alibaba Chief People Officer
Year joined: 2000
Nom de guerre: N/A
Tong has served as Alibaba’s chief people officer since January 2017, where she oversees talent and organisational culture, including development and strategy.
She joined Alibaba in 2000 as the company’s 116th employee, working as a receptionist. She was lauded by colleagues for her meticulous work ethic and a year later was offered the opportunity to transfer to the customer support department.
Since then, Tong has risen through the ranks and held multiple high-level roles across administration, customer service, human resources, and even real estate and procurement.
She is best known for forming and overseeing operations at Cainiao Network, Alibaba’s logistics affiliate established in 2013, where she served as chief operating officer, president, chief executive as well as a non-executive chairwoman.
3. Wang Lei, 38, chief executive of Alibaba subsidiary Ele.me
Year joined: 2003
Nom de guerre: Kun Yang –from the Battle of Kunyang, a well-known war fought in 23AD between the Lulin and Xin forces. The Lulin forces were led by Liu Xiu, who later became Emperor Guangwu of Han, while the far more numerous Xin were led by Wang Yi and Wang Xun. This was the decisive battle that led to the fall of the Xin Dynasty with Lulin forces eventually won the battle.
Wang joined Alibaba in 2003 and took over the reins from Ele.me founder Zhang Xuhao earlier this year following Alibaba’s US$9.5 billion acquisition of the company. Wang will now lead the charge to battle it out with Tencent-backed Meituan-Dianping in the food delivery and local services space.
In an interview with the Post in July, Wang said his objective was to become the leading player in the food-delivery space, with Alibaba continuing to invest “billions of yuan in Ele.me’s development” because the fight for dominance in the local services market is a “must-win”.
“There is no limit to the investment in Ele.me ... no matter how much Alibaba invests into Ele.me, it will be worth it,” Wang said in an interview with Caijing Magazine earlier this year. “Alibaba’s determination gives Ele.me confidence, so I am not worried about investment.”
Prior to Ele.me, Wang was chief executive of Hong Kong-listed Alibaba Health, where he led the company to become a leading online health care ecosystem platform in China.
4. Jeff Zhang Jianfeng, 45, Alibaba chief technology officer
Year joined: 2004
Nom de guerre: Xing Dian – a character in Jin Yong’s novel The Deer and the Cauldron, who possesses great strength and once protected the Shunzhi Emperor in the novel from enemies without regard for his own life.
Zhang has been chief technology officer at Alibaba since April 2016 and also oversees the Alibaba DAMO Academy – a US$15 billion global research programme set up last October that will focus its research on areas such as machine learning, network security, visual computing and natural language processing.
“We are investing so much into DAMO because we want to accomplish a lot – we’re not looking at just creating a software or a system. To achieve what we want, [we] need to make our own chips, our own servers, our own operating systems and all this needs customised research,” Zhang said in an interview with Sina Tech last year.
Prior to joining Alibaba in 2004, Zhang studied computer science at Zhejiang University. He has held roles that include leading Taobao’s technology infrastructure team and product technology development team between 2004 and 2011.
Zhang was promoted to vice-president of product technology and operations for Taobao in 2011, and became vice-president of website and technology of Alibaba.com’s China operations from 2012. He previously also oversaw Juhuasuan, local services, 1688.com and Tmall - all operated by Alibaba.
5. Simon Hu Xiaoming, 48, president of Alibaba Cloud
Year joined: 2005
Nom de guerre: Sun Quan – an ancient Emperor in China who founded the state of Eastern Wu during the Three Kingdoms period.
Hu has served as president of Alibaba Cloud Computing at Alibaba Group since November 2014. Under Hu’s leadership, revenue from the cloud computing business jumped from 362 million yuan (US$52.7 million) in the December 2014 quarter to 4.7 billion yuan for the quarter ended June 30 this year. Alibaba Cloud is currently the leading cloud computing services provider in China and the third-largest globally.
In an interview with Caixin last year, Hu said Alibaba Cloud did not have any competitors in the short-term, and that even the No. 2 competitor would need at least three years to catch up. According to IDC data, Alibaba Cloud has about half the market share in China, while Tencent comes in second with 9.6 per cent.
“It’s good that other competitors want to catch up with Alibaba, but that’s difficult. Their biggest opportunity will depend on whether or not Alibaba Cloud will make a mistake,” he said.
Hu first joined the group in 2005, and has held various management roles at both Alibaba and Ant Financial, including chief risk officer at Ant and general manager of Alibaba’s SME loan business.
Prior to Alibaba, Hu worked for financial institutions, including China Construction Bank and China Everbright Bank.
He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Finance from Zhejiang University and an executive MBA degree from China Europe International Business School, which he graduated from in September 2010.
6. Eric Jing Xiandong, 45, executive chairman and chief executive of Ant Financial
Year joined: 2007
Nom de guerre: Wang An Shi – an ancient Chinese economist and chancellor of the Song Dynasty best known as a governmental reformer who implemented reforms on commerce, industry, and agriculture between 1069–76.
Jing joined Alibaba’s Alipay business in 2007 after graduating from the Carlson Executive MBA – China Programme (CHEMBA) at the University of Minnesota - a programme that he says helped broaden his horizons so much that he made a personal donation of US$5 million to the school in 2016.
Prior to joining Alibaba, Jing served as chief financial officer at Guangzhou Pepsi Cola Beverage Co. from 2004 to 2006. He said he had to decide between working for a Fortune 500 company or working for Alibaba, then a fledgling e-commerce start-up looking to vanquish eBay entirely from the Chinese e-commerce space.
He decided not to go for the “safe bet” and chose Alibaba instead, having been inspired by the company’s mission to make it easy to do business anywhere, and giving everyone a chance to succeed. Executive vice-chairman Joseph Tsai, who then was the chief financial officer for Alibaba, was the one who interviewed and hired Jing.
“I could not have known that Alibaba would grow to today’s scale,” Jing said in his speech as a 2017 Commencement keynote speaker at the Carlson School of Management.
Since joining Alibaba, Jing has risen through the ranks, eventually succeeding Lucy Peng as chief executive of Ant Financial in 2016, and taking on the additional role of executive chairman earlier this year.
“[Eric] has shown a unique combination of idealism, optimism and professionalism. He dreams big, yet is down-to-earth. He keeps his eye on the future while making every day count,” Jack Ma wrote of Jing in an internal staff letter earlier this year, announcing Jing’s promotion to the executive chairman position.
“He has won the team’s trust and respect through his belief in, and understanding of, the future of financial services and his devotion to the company.”