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Alibaba CEO Zhang to pick up baton from founder Ma

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Daniel Zhang, CEO of Alibaba Group, attends the Singles’ Day global shopping festival in Shanghai. Supplied

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Unlike his charismatic boss, Jack Ma, Alibaba chief executive Daniel Zhang isn’t usually one to grab the limelight, let alone make kung fu movies with superstars or dance in public.

Little is known outside the company about Mr Zhang, a soft-spoken accountant who goes under the epithet “Xiaoyaozi” at work – the name of a character from a Chinese martial arts novel literally meaning the “free and unfettered one.”

But he will have to step out from the shadows after Mr Ma said he would leave his role as chairman in September 2019, handing Mr Zhang the reins of his $420 billion tech giant.

“We don’t know much about (Mr Zhang) even though he’s been CEO for a while, because he’s by nature a very low-key person, low profile. He’s happy to not be in the limelight,” said Duncan Clark, managing director at Beijing tech advisory BDA and author of “Alibaba: The House that Jack Built”.

The handover of power, the first such transition for any of China’s major tech firms, will see Mr Zhang, 46, elevated to the top of a sprawling empire that spans e-commerce, payments, fast food delivery and brick-and-mortar retail.

Mr Zhang, who leads Alibaba’s investor calls with polish stemming from his years at global auditors Arthur Andersen and PricewaterhouseCoopers, has been CEO since 2015.

His fingerprints are on some of the company’s most successful moves: he was a key architect of Alibaba’s “Singles Day,” the Nov 11 event that has become the world’s largest online shopping festival.

The company has added around $200 billion to its market value since he became CEO, and has now posted nine straight quarters of revenue growth above 50 percent while investing in food delivery and offline retail, and pushing into Southeast Asia.

Crucially, Mr Zhang oversaw the growth of retail platform Tmall, which has grown to be one of the company’s most significant revenue drivers, squaring off against major Chinese e-commerce rival JD.com Inc.

But he also inherits some challenges. Despite soaring sales, Alibaba’s profit margins have been squeezed by rising competition and heavy investment to fend off rivals. The company’s shares are down more than 10 percent this year after peaking in June.

A global trade war is also hampering Alibaba’s ambitions for international expansion, including into the United States.

Mr Zhang, who joined Alibaba in 2007, sees Alibaba as an integrated ecosystem that lures consumers with movies, live-streamed sports, fast food deliveries and news.

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