Jack Ma: My Life After Alibaba
(AFR) — If England, to quote Adam Smith, is a nation of shopkeepers, then China is a nation of entrepreneurs. And China’s most successful entrepreneur, Jack Ma, is also its biggest celebrity. Photos of the founder of Alibaba, whose personal fortune is estimated by both Forbes and Hurun at $40 billion, hang in people’s houses, often coupled with one of his motivational aphorisms: “Believe in your dream and believe in yourself,” says one. Says another: “Today is hard, tomorrow will be worse, but the day after tomorrow will be sunshine.”
But sunshine is not what Ma sees when he casts his eye to the horizon. “It is a world full of hope, it is a world full of worries. The world needs leadership,” he says, emphasizing the point with a clenched fist.
“We had a great time after World War II, people started working together. But today we have to work in a new leadership of cooperation plus competition. If we cannot lift most people out of poverty, if we cannot help most of the poor share technology, share the prosperity, we may be in big trouble.”
Another day, another billionaire fretting about the economic order that has made him rich — although notably, Ma sat down with The Australian Financial Review Magazine on March 28, a week before JP Morgan Chase chairman and chief executive Jamie Dimon told investors that the American Dream was “fraying for many,” and hedge fund manager Ray Dalio said capitalism needed to “evolve or die.”
Indeed, if public ponderings about capitalism’s future by some of the world’s wealthiest is suddenly the zeitgeist, Ma sensed the change in the wind months ago, back in September, when he announced he would step down as executive chairman of Alibaba on Sept. 10 this year, on the occasion of his 55th birthday, to focus on philanthropy through his Jack Ma Foundation.
“Spending money is more difficult than making money for me today,” says Ma, the richest man in a country with more than 300 billionaires. “I did not expect I would be that wealthy and now I’m that wealthy, I have convinced myself that wealth is not mine.”
Ma’s decision to share his plans with AFR Magazine reflects, in part, his special relationship with Australia. An early influence was an electrical engineer from Newcastle, the late Ken Morley, who encouraged Ma on his quest to learn English, and who brought him to Australia when he was 20 years old.
“I love Australia and I love going there. That’s the country that changed my view of life,” says Ma, who is still in touch with Morley’s son David and his sister Susan. “We [Ken Morley and I] had a lot of debates about the future, about China’s development. He said China should pay attention to the environment. I had no idea about this … [I thought] ‘let’s get rich first’ … then so many years passed and I thought ‘you’re smart’. He was right.”
Fitting, then, that the environment will be a focus of his philanthropy, along with healthcare. Both are second-tier objectives, with the bigger focus to be on entrepreneurship, women and his greatest passion: teaching. “Whether history remembers me, that’s not important,” he says. “But if people one day talk about Jack Ma, I hope they will say he was a teacher, he was passionate about education and training.” Which leads to the second reason Ma has been drawn to sitting down with AFR Magazine. He’s aware this feature appears in our annual Rich List issue, and Ma believes he can teach the world’s billionaires how to use their money to make the world a better place.
“People like us need to be very clear. What does wealth mean to you? How much money can you spend in your life? There’s only so many beds you can sleep in, only so many dinners you [can] eat. That’s it right? I don’t like jewelry, I don’t like watches,” he says, waving his bare arm in the air to demonstrate he is not wearing either.
“If you have a couple of million dollars, that’s your money. But if you have $20 million to $30 million, then the problems come. You worry about inflation, where to invest. But if you have over $1 billion, then that’s not the money you have, that’s the money society expects you, your children, or your organization, to spend in a more efficient way than the others. That’s a responsibility.”
I am sitting in Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou, waiting for Jack Ma in the Peach Blossom room, named after a setting in a martial arts novel written by his favorite author, the late Jin Yong. The room’s minimalist style feels more Japanese than Chinese, incorporating creams and browns with natural timbers and modern art. The floor-to-ceiling windows overlook a verdant landscape of waterways and Chinese elm trees outside — more drizzly British countryside than an Asian megalopolis of 5 million people.
Photos of prime ministers, presidents and royalty line a curved wall which snakes around the reception hall. Ma features in almost all of them, beaming for the camera as he rubs shoulders with the likes of Bill Gates, Emmanuel Macron, Christine Lagarde and the King and Queen of Jordan.
The Alibaba founder’s journey from a humble English teacher to the executive chairman of a $460 billion global giant spanning digital payments, e-commerce, cloud computing and Hollywood movies is documented on these walls. There are pictures of Ma and Alibaba’s 17 other co-founders in his tiny apartment where the company was founded in 1999; Ma and his staff in surgical masks as they soldier on through the 2003 SARS epidemic; Ma on a vast stage in 2018 celebrating a Global Shopping Festival which generated $30 billion in revenue in a single day.
Jack Ma with his Australian mentor Ken Morley. Photo: AFR
His arrival into the room is low key, dressed casually in a black tracksuit carrying the Alibaba logo and sneakers. There is something elf-like about Ma’s movements as he darts from person to person politely shaking hands but not looking entirely comfortable about being in a room full of strangers observing his every move.
At 1.65 meters (5 feet 5 inches) he is small, but has a presence that supersedes physical height. While his head sometimes looks disproportionately large to his body in photographs (he once joked that “people call me ET or Alien”), Ma looks like a regular human being in the flesh. “You must do a lot of these?” our photographer asks as Ma settles into position to have his portrait taken. “Actually I don’t. This is my first photo shoot this year, maybe in years,” he replies.
Ma may not have sat for a magazine shoot for some time but he is no stranger to the public stage. Twenty-four hours earlier he was delivering a speech to cadets at the United States Military Academy, commonly known as West Point. He is a regular at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In 2015, then US president Barack Obama famously broke with protocol by interviewing Ma on stage at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila.
In April, he inflamed a divisive debate raging in China about the treatment of overworked staff in the country’s technology sector. In a social media post, he said it was a “blessing” to work 12-hour days, six days a week (a work ethic known as “996” – 9am to 9pm), and the long hours were crucial to China’s economic success. The comments sparked a backlash on social media in China, where his critics accused him of being out of touch. Ma went on to defend his comments, although friends say he is far from a “slave driver” and simply meant that long hours are necessary to get ahead.
Speaking with AFR Magazine before that brouhaha, Ma reveals his own fatigue at being a celebrity. “I get criticized on social media every day ... After 20 years of being criticized ... I don’t care about that. But if you are young, you are a celebrity; the storm suddenly comes to you and can easily break you. It is a huge storm ... you’ve got to be ready for it.
“A lot of people want to stand in the center of the stage, the spotlight on you. But that light has poison in it. Every move and the whole world looks at you. What's the point? I'm not a politician, I'm not an actor. When you are a business person and the spotlight is on you, that's no good," he says. He throws in a Chinese proverb for good measure: the bigger the tree grows, the bigger the wind.
Ma is a survivor in a country not known for its kindness to prominent business leaders. A number of billionaires and company chiefs have disappeared over the past decade, including Fosun investment group boss Guo Guangchang — “China’s Warren Buffett” — who eventually turned up in the United States. Another jumped to his death while under investigation for corruption. Ma has retained a squeaky clean image. His minders warn ahead of the interview that questions about Chinese politics or the economy are off limits.
Under the reign of Xi Jinping, entrepreneurs are less popular than they had been. Xi has slowed the pace of economic reform and, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, state-owned enterprises are now grabbing the lion’s share of bank lending, crowding out private investment. The US trade war is weighing more on the private sector, which relies heavily on exports, and stock market falls are forcing many companies to sell large stakes to state-owned groups.
As China’s de facto ambassador for business, it’s important for Ma that he protects his privacy. He hints this has left him feeling dislocated from his public persona, which, as often happens with founders, overshadows other people’s work. “I understand that Jack Ma and Jack Me, they are different. Jack Ma has become the model image for a lot of people. But I’m not that guy,” he says. “I don’t want to take all the credit for Alibaba. It’s not me. When people in the media say ‘Jack Ma is so great, he launched this thing,’ I say ‘I saw it on the news, too.’ It is the team that is making it great,” he says, pointing to the Alibaba staff in the room.
While Ma is downplaying his role at the juggernaut he has created at an opportune time — in the midst of handing over the reins — there seems to be a genuine desire to shed the Alibaba persona that has dominated his past two decades. Ma comes across as restless. There is too much to do in a world that needs fixing.
“Sometimes it’s like wearing a coat of Jack Ma. I have a responsibility because I am the CEO, chairman and Jack Ma. But in my heart I know I have to be strong to take that coat off.”
When Ma officially steps down as executive chairman in September, he plans to take a couple of months, or maybe a year, “to study, to plan, to think, and then [embark] on my new journey.”
He estimates 60% of his time will be devoted to education, entrepreneurship and women’s leadership. This work will be conducted partly through his foundation, where Ma wants to be directly involved, talking to headmasters and building schools. He says the remaining 40% will be for “things that jump up, that are very interesting or I suddenly fall in love with.”
Inspired by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, he established the Jack Ma Foundation in 2014, which focuses on initiatives to support teachers and headmasters serving 90 million children in rural China. Ma and Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai funded their personal trusts with stock options representing about 2% of Alibaba’s equity at the time. Separately, Alibaba has donated 0.3% of its total revenues to a corporate charitable foundation since 2010.
But while Ma admires Gates and Buffett, he makes it clear he wants to do things his way. He does not plan to sign up to the Giving Pledge, a Silicon Valley-led initiative where the world’s super rich dedicate the majority of their wealth to charitable causes that others manage. While he says China has a long history of philanthropy, a lot of the wealth is new. Ma, the builder of businesses, believes he is the best qualified to build China’s not-for-profit sector.
That sector is comparatively small — a symptom, in part, of the Mao era, when people were taught to believe the Communist Party would provide for all material needs, and also the government’s continued wariness of groups linked to religion.
“Where to put the money? That is very difficult,” Ma says. “I am able to meet so many people, see so many things and have so many resources for creating money. So for the next 10, 15, 20 years, I would love to use these resources, relationships, and influence better … I know how to find the right people, I know how to get things done.”
One Australian who has spent time with Ma is Jessica Rudd, the daughter of the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and a brand ambassador for Alibaba. Rudd understands Ma’s world after establishing her own e-commerce business — Jessica’s Suitcase — selling Australian products to China’s middle classes while living in Beijing. “Ma has always been ahead of his time, and philanthropy is a new frontier for China,” she says. “For a nation that has just pulled half a billion people out of poverty, it’s a quick turnaround to move into a culture of giving, so I’m glad Jack will be leading the way.”
Another is David Morley, who often fields phone calls from people looking for donations because they think he has a hotline to Ma. It was David who first met a young boy named Ma Yun on the West Lake in Hangzhou in 1980. "Surreal is the world I use a lot," he says of his family's friendship with China's richest man. "It was a chance meeting between two young boys in China."
He recalls Ma’s month-long stay at the family home in Newcastle in the 1980s, when Ma performed “drunken boxing” in the backyard. Morley’s father organized for Jack to address his Rotary Club meeting – possibly his first public speaking engagement. “He is self-made,” Morley says. “He has experience with the West but he wants something better for China. He had the opportunity other Chinese people didn’t have at a very critical time.”
In 2008, Morley went to China on his honeymoon and Ma helped him get coveted tickets to a World Cup qualifier between China and Australia in a remote province. He has also been to Ma’s house several times for dinner. “He flew from Japan to Hangzhou especially to have dinner with Mum and me, and insisted on sitting between us,” Morley says. “Friendship is what the relationship was built on and that’s why it survived. Dad would have been so proud of that.”
Ma’s passion for education stems from his first job as a teacher in Hangzhou. Terrible at maths, but excellent in English, he practiced his language skills as a tour guide for foreigners visiting the city. Ma failed his college entrance exam twice before getting into university. He earned $12 a month teaching English at the Hangzhou Institute of Electronic Engineering after graduating in 1988. China’s economy was kicking up a gear under Deng Xiaoping when, on a visit to Seattle in 1995, he used a computer for the first time in his life to log onto the internet. He searched for the word “beer” and found sites for American beer and German beer but nothing about beer in China.
After launching an online directory called China Pages, which flopped, Ma set up Alibaba in 1999 from his apartment in Hangzhou with 17 friends and $60,000. Having outlined a 102-year vision for the company, Ma listed Alibaba on the Nasdaq in 2014. With a market capitalization of $230 billion, it was the world’s biggest-ever share market float.
It has not always been an easy ride. Alibaba has long struggled to combat the sale of counterfeit goods on its platforms. In 2011, several sales staff were arrested for colluding with criminals to defraud foreign customers and its then-CEO resigned. Alibaba is expanding globally, including in Australia, but the slowing Chinese economy and a strained relationship between China’s leaders and the private sector have made life tougher for entrepreneurs such as Ma.
“No doubt that the ascendant [President] Xi at the helm of an increasingly assertive, centralizing and authoritarian [Communist] Party is a factor,” says Duncan Clark, author of the book Alibaba: The House Jack Ma Built, of Ma’s imminent departure as executive chairman. “Entrepreneurs have to tread very carefully these days for fear of stepping on the toes of the state or Party.
“But Jack is smart enough to know when it’s time to not compete for the limelight. He’s focusing his public interventions in areas that serve the Party’s own goals; for example, his work on entrepreneurship in east Africa, and the environment.”
Ma’s decision to hand over the reins to chief executive Daniel Zhang at such a young age is especially extraordinary in China, where company founders tend to work well into their 70s before handing over control to their children. Although he is not extracting himself completely.
“I will never leave the company if it’s a bad time,” Ma says. “A lot of people work all their life in a company. If this company really wants to last ... if we are serious about the 102-year vision, we have to transition the company to the next generation and I have to do it while I’m young.
“Alibaba is a very important part of my life. It is just like a child: when he [the child] grows up, you are the father but you do not own him. Let him go to school, go into society, work. But of course if he is in trouble you are the father, you have to be able to help.
“But remember Alibaba, I do not own it. I will still be sitting on the board. There is a transition period. I am still involved as a partner. But I spend most of the time not directing where the business goes. I will spend most of the time on training the young leaders of the company and helping them.”
Throughout our interview, Ma is philosophical without losing focus. He is still jet-lagged from his trip to the United States but there is a twinkle in his eye. He articulates each point with dramatic hand gestures, sometimes punching the air or forming one hand into a duck’s beak when describing someone who talks too much (“blah blah blah”).
He has mastered the art of being open without revealing too much of himself. For such a public figure, little is known about his wife, Cathy, who helped him set up Alibaba and his two grown children. He is known to play poker and practice tai chi but there are no glossy magazine shots inside his home or on a yacht. Ma travels extensively for work but where he holidays is a mystery (although he is believed to visit New Zealand regularly). He is the opposite of Richard Branson.
“As much as a billionaire celebrity can, he retains his approachable nature, his penchant for self-deprecation and his common touch,” author Clark says. “He likes to recognize and thank people from the early days.” In this spirit, Ma donated $26 million for a scholarship program to the University of Newcastle in 2017.
Ma certainly comes across as sincere and brimming with ideas. He is clearly anxious about the world’s various challenges from technological change, environmental degradation and lack of co-operation between countries. He is obsessed with tackling poverty, particularly in Africa, where his foundation sponsors programs to train young entrepreneurs. And Ma believes women need more support in leadership roles. “If women are happy, men are happy,” he quips.
When Ma began his entrepreneurial journey, it was in the shadow of Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 pronouncement that “to get rich is glorious.” As the man who built the biggest e-commerce platform in China, one that rivals Amazon, Ma personifies the rise of the Chinese consumer and his country’s shift away from saving towards spending. By using his money to make China better, fairer and greener, Jack Ma after Alibaba might mark yet another pivot in the world’s second-largest economy.
This story was originally published in The Australian Financial Review
Contact editor Yang Ge (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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