By Hope King
Jack Ma, the man synonymous with Alibaba, will remain Executive Chairman until September 10, 2019, at which point current Alibaba Group CEO Daniel Zhang will take the role. Ma will remain a board of director until Alibaba's shareholders meeting in 2020.
Ma, who helped found what's arguably China's most well-known company, made the announcement Sunday night, clearing up a confusing weekend created by two conflicting reports.
The succession plan confirms what the South China Morning Post reported and contradicts a story from The New York Times Friday which suggested Ma would cede his Executive Chairman post to focus on philanthropic efforts.
"Alibaba’s co-founder and executive chairman, Jack Ma, said he planned to step down from the Chinese e-commerce giant on Monday," the lede in the Times read.
The story goes on to quote Ma, who apparently spoke with the Times: "Mr. Ma said his retirement is not the end of an era but 'the beginning of an era.' He said he would be spending more of his time and fortune focused on education. 'I love education,' he said."
The South China Morning Post, which Alibaba owns, cited a company spokesman who said the 54-year-old former English teacher would instead "provide transition plans over a significant period of time."
The Post's story, which was published after the Times', also includes a quote from Ma, who said: "I sat down with our senior executives 10 years ago and asked what Alibaba would do without me...I’m very proud that Alibaba now has the structure, corporate culture, governance and system for grooming talent that allows me to step away without causing disruption."
A spokeswoman for The New York Times in an email to Cheddar prior to the announcement said it stands by its story. The South China Morning Post has not yet responded to request for comment.
Ma's succession plan signals the company's readiness to continue forward without its famous leader. Alibaba's business has grown from purely online shopping to now include a sprawling array of logistical and digital products and services ー food delivery, fintech, cloud and A.I., and media, to name a few.
The company, based in Hangzhou, has been caught up in the Chinese government's crackdown on technology companies and in the escalating trade war with the U.S. Shares of Alibaba, which hit an all-time high in June, have fallen more than 20 percent since.
In a letter to Alibaba customers, employees, and shareholders, Ma on Sunday said he had put a lot of thought and preparation into this succession plan, one that has been in the works for a decade.
"We asked ourselves this question 10 years ago – how could Alibaba achieve sustainable growth after Jack Ma leaves the company? We believed the only way to solve the problem of corporate leadership succession was to develop a system of governance based on a unique culture and mechanisms for developing consistent talent and successors," Ma's letter reads. "Alibaba was never about Jack Ma, but Jack Ma will forever belong to Alibaba."
The September 10th date is also significant because it is Ma's birthday. He turns 54 Monday.
Ma did not specifically address what he will do after his retirement. But he has as recently as last week spoken to news outlets about wanting to pursue philanthropic efforts ー including improving educational access and systems and developing young entrepreneurs. He launched his eponymous Jack Ma Foundation in 2014. He's often referred to as "Teacher Ma" inside Alibaba ー a term of respect in Chinese culture and also a nod to his first occupation. In 2016, the United Nations named him a Special Adviser to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), to help young entrepreneurs and small businesses globally, with an emphasis on developing countries.
If some of these goals and this career change sound familiar, they should. Ma has cited Bill Gates as someone from whom he has learned. Gates stepped down as chairman of Microsoft four years ago at the age of 58 to pursue philanthropic efforts. He had been CEO of the company until 2000.
Ma stepped down as CEO of Alibaba in 2013 but has remained Executive Chairman. His net worth is more than $40 billion, making him the richest man in China and 19th in the world, according to Bloomberg. Gates had been the world's richest person until earlier this year when Jeff Bezos topped him.
Ma told Bloomberg in an interview last week that he could never be "as rich" as Gates, but one thing he could do better "is to retire earlier."