Nobody fanned the flames of entrepreneurship in China more than Jack Ma, the legendary chairman of e-commerce giant Alibaba. Now he's stepping down, and DW's Frank Sieren says that's good for the company.
Jack Ma has made many inspiring speeches throughout his career. Everyone in China can cite him. One of his most fascinating talks goes back to 1999, the year he founded Alibaba. Then only 35 years old, he told his friends and business partners sitting in a spartan apartment to think in global terms. He told them that their rivals weren't in China but in Silicon Valley. Those listening were serious and a little afraid. Ma assured them that the coming years might be painful, but that Chinese businesspeople could beat anyone with their innovative power.
"Never give up. Today is hard, tomorrow will be worse, but the day after tomorrow will be sunshine," Ma once famously said.
This is how legends are born. Today, nobody knows about the thousands of startups where similar speeches were probably uttered but have since been forgotten. Ma made it, however. Since announcing earlier this week that he was stepping down as chairman of Alibaba, he has been mentioned in the same breath as Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. He plans to remain in the job for another year to celebrate his company's 20th anniversary. Afterwards, the former English teacher will concentrate on his private life, as well as his foundation activity and projects involving the environment and education.
Success and determination
His announcement did not come as a complete surprise. Last year, he said that he would rather die on the beach than in an office. Ma is not like Chinese President Xi Jinping, who could potentially remain in power the rest of his life. But he has had a Xi-like electrifying effect on his country and has injected a well-needed dose of self-confidence into Chinese society.
Under Ma, Alibaba has been able to put pressure on Silicon Valley giants Google and Facebook, inspiring others in China to set up companies of their own. Now worth an estimated $36 billion (€31 billion), May says that anyone can make it so long as they persevere in the face of setbacks.
Ma likes to tell stories of his failures, like how he was rejected from a job at KFC even though all 23 of his fellow applicants got hired. As a young man, he guided tourists around West Lake in his home town of Hangzhou to improve his English. He was 33 when he bought his first computer. His first internet project, an online directory, was so slow that staff members would play poker to pass the time until the site had loaded. His is not a straightforward success story. But Ma was determined. "Being innovative means you look at today from a viewpoint of tomorrow," he once said.
That's what Ma did with Alibaba. Refusing to give up, he turned his small internet portal into a global e-commerce and entertainment giant that continues to expand. Alibaba went public in 2014 and made Wall Street history by raising $25 billion. Now Ant Financial, Alibaba's financial arm, plans to go public soon. Alibaba's success is far from over.
One of China's most popular VIPs
Nonetheless, it makes sense for Ma to step down. He has become one of China's most popular VIPs in recent years, making philosophical speeches about business that are full of irony and self-deprecating forays into acting and singing. It's risky to be a public figure and the key man behind a listed company these days. Richard Liu, the head of Alibaba's rival JD.com, learned this the hard way. He and his wife, Zhang Zetian, enjoy a similar level of fame in China. When Liu was arrested in the United States earlier this month on a charge of criminal sexual conduct, shares in his company fell by 7 percent to an 18-month low. Though he was released after one night in custody, it will take time before the photo taken by Minneapolis police officers is forgotten, regardless of whether he is found guilty or not.
Ma transferred Alibaba's operations to a team of managers that he trained up himself in 2014 in order to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. In a letter to customers and shareholders announcing his departure, he wrote that Alibaba has never been only about Jack Ma, but instead has become a company "built on systems of organizational excellence and a culture of talent development."
Beginning of a new era?
Ma does not see his resignation as an end, but rather as the beginning of a new era. Daniel Zhang will take over the reins in a year's time. He studied business and it's under him that Alibaba's e-commerce market Taobao really took off. He's also responsible for Alibaba's Singles' Day, an annual one-day shopping event that takes place on November 11. Last year, the company made $25 billion on one day alone. Ma praised his successor in his letter: "His analytical mind is unparalleled, he holds dear our mission and vision, he embraces responsibility with passion, and he has the guts to innovate and test creative business models."
It could be as tough for Zhang as it was for Tim Cook when he took over from Apple visionary Steve Jobs. But Ma will still be around. He intends to stay on the board until 2020 to help organize the next big meeting of investors. He will also continue to act as a mentor to young and talented managers. His inspiring speeches are not likely to be forgotten anytime soon.
Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.