Meet Alibaba's new boss, the financial vet who replaces visionary Jack Ma

Jack Ma (Left) and Daniel Zhang (Right). Photo: Reuters
Stewardship of Asia’s most valuable company is passing to a financial wizard who has led the company’s effort to drag the traditional retail industry into the 21st century.

Jack Ma will step down as executive chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. in 2019, handing the reins to Daniel Zhang, who became chief executive officer barely three years ago. The 46-year-old certified accountant has been the driving force behind a mandate to transform old-school commerce using technology that it’s dubbed “New Retail.”

Since his ascension, the Shanghai-educated executive has proven a capable operator, designing and pulling off mega-events such as the annual Singles’ Day shopping bonanza. The company’s stock has risen 87 percent over his tenure and Alibaba now has a market value of about $420 billion, eclipsing WeChat operator Tencent Holdings Ltd.

Ma hired Zhang from Chinese gaming giant Shanda Interactive Entertainment Ltd. in 2007 -- an episode Ma handled with kid gloves because Shanda’s founder was a longtime friend and prominent entrepreneur. Ma went to Chen Tianqiao’s home for dinner and apologized in person for the recruitment.

“At the time, Alibaba was a smaller private company so it shows that Daniel is also a visionary,” Chen said in an interview Monday.

Ma made the announcement on his 54th birthday, capping a storied two-decade career during which the former English school-teacher built Alibaba into one of China’s most celebrated corporations, running eBay Inc. out of the country and relegating Inc. to the unfamiliar position of also-ran. Along the way, he hived off a payments service in controversial fashion, creating the $150 billion online finance giant Ant Financial.

Zhang now has to steer China’s largest corporation abroad, where it’s made headway in markets like Southeast Asia but remains alien to many Western consumers. He’ll enjoy unprecedented authority to do so, combining the chairman and CEO roles for the first time since Ma himself held the positions prior to 2013.

“Jack Ma’s said CFOs don’t make good CEOs, but Daniel is an exception,” said Kim Eng Securities analyst Mitchell Kim. “The challenges will be how Alibaba can expand outside of Asia.”

Zhang’s signature endeavor has been his drive to transform old-school shopping using data analysis to manage inventory and shipping. That’s an effort that’s driven more than $8 billion of deals in the span of several years, involving traditional retail chains such as Suning.

Alibaba’s Retail Mega-Investments and Acquisitions

Suning Commerce ($4.6 billion)
Sun Art ($2.9 billion)
Intime Retail (at least $2.6 billion)

That effort caps a meteoric rise. Zhang joined Alibaba in 2007 as chief financial officer of Taobao, when the consumer-to-consumer marketplace was fresh off a victory over Meg Whitman and eBay but also battling a reputation for fakes. He proved his worth by turning Taobao Mall into Tmall, which sold higher-quality goods direct from branded merchants. That service later became instrumental in helping repair Alibaba’s image, and the U.S. removed the company from its “Notorious Markets” list in 2012 (though it re-joined in 2016).

Earlier this month, Zhang penned an editorial for CNBC in which he laid out his leadership approach. They included management tropes such as thinking long-term, but there were more novel axioms such as “buy, don’t bet,” in which Zhang explained that acquiring beats investing when it comes to strategic projects.

“If you’re going to win a race, it’s more important to buy a horse than just bet on it,” he wrote.

His elevation now ranks him a cut above a team of lieutenants who’ve stood by Ma for a decade or more. Among them are Ma’s close confidante, Joseph Tsai, who’s also 54 and remains vice chairman, and Lucy Peng, once a front-runner for leadership who led Ant Financial before taking the helm at Southeast Asian operation Lazada.

Zhang’s also been credited as one of the key architects of Alibaba’s Singles’ Day extravaganza, now an annual $25 billion shopping spree that covers more than 200 countries. Prior to Alibaba, Zhang worked at PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Arthur Andersen after getting a bachelor’s degree in finance from the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.

Despite his rapid ascent, the executive remembers his roots, Chen said. “Many years after he left Shanda, he still finds time to attend Shanda’s annual alumni gathering and gives a speech,” the founder said. “That’s touching.”

‘Intelligent people need a fool to lead them’

Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba Group Holding, has dispensed Yoda-like wisdom over the years that have made him a role model in China and the subject of dozens of books

On his leadership approach:
"Intelligent people need a fool to lead them. When the team’s all a bunch of scientists, it is best to have a peasant lead the way. His way of thinking is different. It’s easier to win if you have people seeing things from different perspectives."

On the importance of women in top management:
“Women understand the thing that makes them better than men, the greatest weapon that God gives them, is gentleness. They understand tolerance.”

On fighting eBay’s efforts to enter China:
“EBay may be a shark in the ocean, but I am a crocodile in the Yangtze River. If we fight in the ocean, we lose ? but if we fight in the river, we win.”

On China’s internet controls and Western companies involvement:
“Facebook and these companies, if they come here they have to follow the rules and laws. Google, they left – we did not kick them out. When you do business in any country you have to follow the rules and laws.”

On perspective for young workers:
“If young people have awe for the future, act conscientiously towards the present and be thankful for the past, they will have opportunities.”