Iconic Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma announced today he is stepping down as the company’s CEO, telling employees in an open letter that at 48 he is no longer “young” for the Internet business.
Ma will step down on May 10 but promises to “fully dedicate” himself to a role as executive chairman for Alibaba Group, China’s largest ecommerce company, which is said to be valued at $43 billion. He will still be responsible for the company’s corporate strategy and social responsibility efforts, but he is relinquishing the day-to-day tasks of CEO.
Ma hasn’t named a successor but said in the letter that he is making this announcement a few months in advance because “I want to encourage our young leaders to step forward to ensure a smooth transition.” That strongly implies that the next CEO will come from inside the company.
For that reason, the date Ma has chosen for the transition could be significant. As Alibaba noted in its own report on the announcement, May 10 marks the 10-year anniversary of the founding of Taobao, the online marketplace launched to compete against eBay when it arrived in China. Ma, who is known for speaking in proverbs and choosing auspicious dates for important business, may be eyeing Taobao CEO Jonathan Luk as his replacement. Luk has been with Alibaba since 1999, the year Ma started the company in his Hangzhou apartment. Luk is one of Ma’s top executives and has in the past traveled with the boss to high-level meetings in Silicon Valley.
Taobao under Luk has been a rampant success. Together with the Amazon-like Tmall, it brought in $159.5 billion in sales just for 2012.
Luk has served in several leadership roles at Alibaba.com, the Group’s business-to-business trading arm, and led the team that established the PayPal-like Alipay, according to China Daily. He served as the company’s president for four years before taking over Taobao in 2008.
Ma has been talking about stepping down for more than a year, and the move comes just a few days after the company said it would reorganize itself into 25 business units, each led by a manager. It also marks the end of an era for the company as it readies itself to file for an IPO, perhaps as early as this year. Last May, it agreed to repurchase a 20 percent stake in itself from Yahoo for about $7.1 billion, cooling longstanding tensions between the two companies. Yahoo still retains a 20 percent take in the company.
While Ma will retain a large and important role at the company, his stepping down brings to a close a remarkable chapter in the early days of the Chinese Internet. One of the former English teacher’s most significant achievements as CEO was facing down Meg Whitman and eBay when the once-dominant ecommerce company tried, and ultimately failed, to take on China. In a documentary about the standoff and Alibaba’s rise, Ma is shown rallying his earliest recruits with a speech in his apartment in which he said the Chinese can take on Americans even in high-tech.
“Americans are strong at hardware and systems, but on information and software, Chinese brains are just as good as theirs,” he said. “This is the reason we dare to compete with Americans. If we are a good team and know what we want to do, one of us can defeat ten of them.”
Porter Erisman, a former Alibaba VP who made the film, “Crocodile in the Yangtze,” told PandoDaily last year that Ma has always had a long-term vision to build a large company that has a significant social impact. “He said he didn’t want people to follow him – he wanted people to follow the goals the company was chasing,” Erisman said.
Below is a clip from “Crocodile Yangtze” that shows Ma speaking to his recruits on one of Alibaba’s first days.