Alibaba’s Ma steps down as industry faces uncertainty

Joe McDonald

BEIJING (AP) – Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma, who helped launch China’s online retailing boom, stepped down as chairman of the world’s biggest e-commerce company yesterday at a time when its fast-changing industry faces uncertainty amid a United States (US)-Chinese tariff war.

Ma, one of China’s wealthiest and best-known entrepreneurs, gave up his post on his 55th birthday as part of a succession announced a year ago. He will stay on as a member of the Alibaba Partnership, a 36-member group with the right to nominate a majority of the company’s board of directors.

Ma, a former English teacher, founded Alibaba in 1999 to connect Chinese exporters to American retailers.

The company has shifted focus to serving China’s growing consumer market and expanded into online banking, entertainment and cloud computing. Domestic businesses accounted for 66 per cent of its USD16.7 billion in revenue in the quarter ending in June.

Chinese retailing faces uncertainty amid a tariff war that has raised the cost of US imports.Growth in online sales decelerated to 17.8 per cent in the first half of 2019 amid slowing Chinese economic growth, down from 2018’s full-year rate of 23.9 per cent.

Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma. PHOTO: AP

Alibaba says its revenue rose 42 per cent over a year earlier in the quarter ending in June to USD16.7 billion and profit rose 145 per cent to USD3.1 billion. Still, that was off slightly from 2018’s full-year revenue growth of 51 per cent.

The total amount of goods sold across Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms rose 25 per cent last year to USD853 billion. By comparison, the biggest US e-commerce company, Amazon.com Inc, reported total sales of USD277 billion.

Alibaba’s deputy chairman, Joe Tsai, told reporters in May the company is “on the right side” of issues in US-Chinese trade talks. Tsai said Alibaba stands to benefit from Beijing’s promise to increase imports and a growing consumer market.

Alibaba is one of a group of companies including Tencent Holding Ltd, a games and social media giant, search engine Baidu.com Inc and e-commerce rival JD.com that have revolutionised shopping, entertainment and consumer services in China.

Alibaba was founded at a time when few Chinese were online. As Internet use spread, the company expanded into consumer-focussed retailing and services. Few Chinese used credit cards, so Alibaba created the Alipay online payments system.

Ma, known in Chinese as Ma Yun, appears regularly on television. At an annual Alibaba employee festival in Hanzhou, he has sung pop songs in costumes that have included blond wigs and leather jackets. He pokes fun at his own appearance, saying his oversize head and angular features make him look like the alien in director Steven Spielberg’s movie ET The  Extraterrestrial.

The company’s USD25 billion initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange in September 2014 was the biggest to date by a Chinese company.

The Hurun Report, which follows China’s wealth, estimates Ma’s fortune at USD38 billion.

In 2015, Ma bought the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s biggest English-language newspaper.

Ma’s successor as chairman is CEO Daniel Zhang, a former accountant and 12-year veteran of Alibaba. He previously was president of its consumer-focussed Tmall.com business unit.