SHANGHAI (AFP) – Alibaba has become by far the dominant e-commerce company in China, a country with the world’s greatest number of Internet users, in only 15 years.
The Hangzhou-based company is largely unknown outside Greater China but one of the biggest-ever listings on the New York Stock Exchange and a newly launched US shopping website, 11 Main, will expand its global stature.
The flotation will see the firm valued between $148 billion and $162.7 billion, according to the $60 to $66 per share price range it filed with regulators.
With ambitions beyond online retailing, the company is guided by Jack Ma, a diminutive yet charismatic figure who has gone from an English teacher to a billionaire entrepreneur.
“Fifteen years ago, Alibaba’s 18 founders were determined to set up a global Internet company originated by Chinese people, with hopes it would become one of the world’s top 10 Internet companies, a company which will exist for 102 years,” Ma said in May, meaning the company would span three different centuries.
Ma and other top executives spent last week in the United States pitching the offer to potential investors, and media reports say it is already oversubscribed.
Alibaba had originally planned to list in Hong Kong, thereby staying on Chinese soil, but talks between the company and the exchange broke down last year because listing rules prevented Ma and top management from retaining control over the board of directors.
The controversial structure has proved to be an issue even with a US listing, prompting Alibaba to disclose the identities of more than 20 partners who have the power to appoint a majority of the corporate board.
“Unlike dual-class ownership structures that employ a high-vote class of shares to concentrate control in a few founders, our approach is designed to embody the vision of a large group of management partners,” it argued in a filing with US regulators.
Ma chose the name Alibaba from “1,001 Nights” because it is easily pronounced in both Chinese and English and the literary work’s “open sesame” catchphrase signifies the company can “open a doorway to fortune for small businesses”.
Alibaba is often described as the Chinese version of eBay, and like the US company has its own payments system, though it puts less emphasis on online auctions in favour of instant transactions.