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Wednesday, Oct 23, 2019

Newsmaker: Boss bows out

The founder of e-commerce giant, Alibaba, Jack Ma, has stepped down as chairman at age 55 to focus on philanthropy. What gives?

business Updated: Sep 20, 2019 18:25 IST
Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi
Hindustan Times
Jack Ma started his career as an English teacher and went on to set up a translation services business in 1994, before founding
Jack Ma started his career as an English teacher and went on to set up a translation services business in 1994, before founding (Shutterstock Image)

When looked at from India, men such as Jack Ma seem disdainful. What, after all, do you make of him? Visuals of him projected on giant screens display a thin, gaunt, 5 feet 2 inch wiry frame of energy, straining against an invisible leash. His sharp, square jawline suggests ruthlessness.

Then there are his public statements that sound soul-sapping — such as the one advocating a 9-9-6 work culture. Translated, work from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week. It sounds like a diktat from the captain of a contemporary slave ship; not the utterance of a billionaire entrepreneur who sees himself as uber cool.

His attempts to appear uber cool come across as outlandish. Who dresses up as Michael Jackson and performs a gig in front of 30,000 employees on stage to celebrate 18 years of being in business? Or casts himself as a hero in a kung fu movie alongside Jet Li, and then ropes in Nicole Kidman to accompany him to the film’s premiere? All of it comes across as boorish and brash.

But foreign correspondents based out of China think otherwise and reckon he is among the gentler CEOs to emerge out of contemporary China.

Zhang Ruimin, the 70-year-old chairman of Haier, the world’s fourth largest white goods appliances manufacturer, is cited as a case in point. When he took over in 1982, the company was bankrupt. To demonstrate that the entity must be rebuilt, ground-up, the new boss took a sledgehammer to everything in sight. The hammer is now on display at the company’s “museum”. Such narratives are apparently commonplace in China. In this world, Jack Ma is a breath of fresh air.

He was among the earliest to spot the potential of the internet. To get going on it though, he had to first educate clueless Chinese officials about the internet and show them how an online marketplace for Chinese products could be created. Keep in mind, this was in 1999.


Having done that, the smooth talker convinced Goldman Sachs and SoftBank about how large a market China was. They invested $25 million in his venture and, the e-commerce portal, was born. Twenty years later, it is a conglomerate with interests in diverse areas.

It was brutal on him. So to describe him as boorish and brash is unkind, argues a China veteran of Indian origin. “Ambitious is more like it,” he suggests.

When probed on why, he offers, “Indians are taught to be frugal and ask of themselves: Am I good enough for that? This explains why, when we scout for an office in New York, we hunt for space in the cheaper suburbs. But the Chinese are taught to think big and ask: Is that good enough for me? That is why their first port of call for an office is downtown New York City. They don’t think of it as an expense, but an investment in marketing.”

When looked at from that perspective, Jack Ma’s “boorish” and “brash” behaviour was carefully crafted to cultivate a larger-than-life image that would draw attention to That he did it successfully, there is no doubt.

The question on everyone’s mind now is: was he too successful? It is unheard of for a founder to hand the baton over at age 55 and devote all his time to philanthropy. So why did he do it? Rumour has it, he broke an unspoken rule in China — you do not attempt to outshine the establishment. He did, and was compelled to step down.

Like Icarus, he earned the wings. But forgot he must not fly too close to the sun.

A Success Story Made In China
Jack Ma started his career as an English teacher and went on to set up a translation services business in 1994, before founding

The company started as an e-commerce portal, but is now a conglomerate with interests in diverse areas like cloud computing and film production.

Alibaba competes with Amazon and Google and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

The company’s annual revenues are in excess of $56 billion; Jack Ma is the richest man in China.

First Published: Sep 20, 2019 18:25 IST

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