Jack Ma, the charismatic co-founder of China’s largest e-commerce firm Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, will step down as chairman in one year to concentrate on philanthropy and education, passing on the reins to trusted lieutenant Daniel Zhang.
Ma, who turned 54 on Monday, has long flagged plans to step back, insisting that Alibaba management should be relatively young and his retirement is not expected to affect the running of the company.
But it is still extremely rare for a founder of big and transformative tech firm, especially one with a cult-like status like Ma, to retire so early.
“There’s only Bill Gates who has done the same. No other tech founder in the world has just resigned like that at the top,” said Rupert Hoogewerf, Shanghai-based founder of the Hurun Report, which publishes an annual influential list of China’s richest people.
Hoogewerf added that in China, Ma was a figure like no other, with friends ranging from movie stars to billionaire moguls, though he often outshone them all. “He’s the big one, he’s the one that brings them together.”
Ma will give up the chairman role in exactly one year on September 10, 2019 and complete his current term on Alibaba’s board following the company’s annual general meeting in 2020, the company said. He relinquished the role of chief executive in 2013.
Zhang, 46, has been CEO since 2015 after serving as chief operating officer and is known as a key architect of Alibaba’s “Singles Day”, the November 11 event that has become the world’s largest online shopping event. Zhang, a former accountant, will also continue as CEO.
“Under his stewardship, Alibaba has seen consistent and sustainable growth for 13 consecutive quarters... Starting the process of passing the Alibaba torch to Daniel and his team is the right decision at the right time,” Ma said in a letter released by the company.
Ma, a former English teacher with no technical background, co-founded Alibaba in 1999 with 17 others and has become one of China’s richest people with a net worth of $36.6 billion, according to Forbes.
The firm founded at a time when the industry was still dominated by state-owned firms and entrepreneurship was seen as a risky career path, has grown to have more than 66,000 full-time employees and a market value of Sh42 trillion ($420 billion).
“He put a human face on technology, and took China onto the global stage, not as a state-owned enterprise, crucially,” said Duncan Clark, managing director at Beijing tech advisory BDA.