Alibaba’s Zhang prepares to step from Jack Ma’s shadow

SHANGHAI, Sept 10, 2018 (AFP) – Both in personality and skillset,
Alibaba’s Daniel Zhang will herald a new era for the Chinese e-commerce giant
when he takes over full leadership from charismatic founder Jack Ma.

Ma announced Monday that in exactly one year he will hand the executive
chairmanship of Alibaba’s board to Zhang, CEO since 2015.

Outwardly at least, their differences could not be more stark.

Former English teacher Ma, 54, has become a globally recognised figure
through his constant travel and playful antics such as impersonating Michael
Jackson at a company event last year.

Zhang, 46, on the other hand, is a mild-mannered accountant with a calm,
collected demeanour.

But Zhang is routinely referred to by Chinese media as the man who
transformed Ma’s sturdy little “tractor” into a “Boeing 747”, and analysts
say he is more than up to the task.

Hailing from the commercial hub of Shanghai, Zhang studied finance at
Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.

He was a senior manager at global auditor Price Waterhouse Coopers and
chief financial officer of a Chinese online games company before joining
Alibaba in 2007 as CFO of its main online marketplace Taobao.

Zhang is credited with building Alibaba’s Tmall business-to-consumer
platform into one the group’s most successful arms, and creating the annual
November 11 “Singles’ Day” online shopping bonanza, China’s biggest retail
day of the year.

Launched in 2009 as China’s answer to the US “Black Friday”, “Singles’ Day”
last year saw more than $25 billion worth of goods snapped up on Alibaba
platforms, up nearly 40 percent year-on-year.

Billions of dollars more were boughts via Alibaba’s e-commerce rivals, who
have joined in.

– ‘Wicked smart’ –

In many ways Zhang has been in charge since becoming chief operating
officer in 2013 and CEO in 2015, with Ma stepping back and acting as more of
a figurehead.

Under Zhang’s tenure Alibaba has moved from PC-based transactions to
mobile-based, which now account for nearly 80 percent of total gross
merchandise volume.

With revenues surging, Alibaba’s stock has soared nearly 90 percent. It is
now one of the world’s most valuable companies with a market capitalisation
of about $420 billion.

Within Alibaba’s tight-knit culture, staff each take on nicknames based on
Chinese martial arts figures thought to represent their skills and methods.
Zhang’s is a character known for staying out of battles, but training
unbeatable proteges.

“Jack Ma is incredibly charismatic. Daniel Zhang is not. He’s super smart,
but when he gives a press conference — it’s not really his thing,” said
Jeffrey Towson, author, investor and business professor at Peking University.

“But they (the management team) are all wicked smart. This is a top-tier
management team.”

Zhang is a professed fan of basketball and football. Chinese media say he
is a devoted follower of English club Arsenal.

Under Zhang, Alibaba has poured investment into various new initiatives
including bricks-and-mortar retail, cloud computing, digital media, the
grocery sector, meal delivery and advertising.

In August, it teamed with Starbucks to capitalise on China’s growing coffee
addiction and in April completed the acquisition of Chinese food-delivery
leader, among other deals.

“In the world of business, the excitement never ends, the competition never
ends,” Zhang said in an interview earlier this year.

“You must keep awake every minute; you need to keep your eyes open in your
sleep. You must keep learning and innovating.”