Alibaba Group on Monday (Sept. 10) announced that CEO Daniel Zhang would take over the role of chairman from co-founder Jack Ma a year from today.
In a letter to customers, employees, and shareholders, Ma described the announcement as confirmation that Alibaba had graduated from being “a company that relies on individuals, to one built on systems of organizational excellence and a culture of talent development.”
“No company can rely solely on its founders. Of all people, I should know that. Because of physical limits on one’s ability and energy, no one can shoulder the responsibilities of chairman and CEO forever,” wrote Ma, a former English teacher who in 1999 founded with friends what would become Asia’s largest company by market cap. “[S]o the responsible thing to do for me and the company to do is to let younger, more talented people take over.”
Zhang joined the company in 2007 as chief financial officer of the Taobao Marketplace platform and became CEO of Alibaba Group in May 2015. The company credits him with being a key architect of the Black Friday-inspired Nov. 11 Singles’ Day shopping bonanza, and leading Alibaba’s expansion into logistics as well as its Amazon-like foray into offline grocery retail.
The succession issue has been in the spotlight recently for Chinese firms, particularly as their chiefs have faced regulatory action. China’s Anbang Insurance company was thrown into disarray after its chairman, Wu Xiaohui, was detained last year (he was convicted on embezzlement charges and imprisoned for 18 years in May). Meanwhile, the brief arrest of Richard Liu, the CEO of JD.com, China’s second-largest e-commerce firm, in the US last month on rape allegations drew attention to the fact that his company can hardly hold a board meeting without him. (A lawyer for Liu, who is back in China, has said charges won’t be filed.)
Alibaba’s announcement—which falls on Ma’s 54th birthday—followed confusion about his retirement plans after the New York Times reported Friday (Sept. 7) that he would retire on Monday (paywall), while the South China Morning Post, which Ma owns, disputed the report and said a succession plan would be announced instead.
Jack Ma will be 55 by the time Zhang takes over—making good on a comment he made earlier this month that while he couldn’t be as rich as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, he could retire earlier than him (paywall). Gates retired as chairman in 2014, at age 58. Ma will remain on Alibaba’s board of directors until 2020.
Ma has already made it clear that he doesn’t plan to retire to a life of leisure. Instead, like Gates, he intends to use his wealth and position toward philanthropic efforts, and will focus on education, a pain point for many in China’s middle class. He will likely also continue to serve as an informal ambassador for China’s technological prowess.