Five years before billionaire Jack Ma strode through a euphoric, 1,000-strong New York Stock Exchange crowd to preside over the world’s biggest initial public offering, China’s richest man stage-managed a show-stopping appearance in his home town of Hangzhou.
The venue was an arena called the Yellow Dragon Stadium. The occasion: the 10th birthday of Ma’s e-commerce behemoth, Alibaba Group.
Ma materialized before 16,000 cheering employees in a platinum-blond wig with mohawk spikes, black lipstick and a nose ring. Then the 5-foot-4-inch Internet tycoon launched into a soulful rendition of Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
With hindsight, Ma’s speech was even more striking than his campy cabaret act.
At the time, Ma headed an Alibaba Group unit called Alibaba.com that was listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange. He used the party to emphasize the low status he ascribed to fund managers who held Alibaba.com’s shares before he took the business private in 2012.
“Let the Wall Street investors curse us if they wish!” Ma shouted in Chinese. “We will still follow the principle of customers first, employees second and investors third!”
Ma toned down the rhetoric — and the glitz — at the NYSE on Sept. 19. Wearing a staid black suit and beaming at admirers, he was there to hawk what investors had been drooling over: stock in the entire Alibaba Group.
“I don’t want to disappoint shareholders,” he said. “I want to make sure they’re making money.”
Alibaba, named for the “Arabian Nights” character who uttered “Open sesame” to get into a treasure cave, did just that. The IPO raised an unprecedented $25 billion, eclipsing the $22 billion for Agricultural Bank of China in 2010.
Propelled by a 38 percent surge in Alibaba’s shares in their New York debut, Ma, who’d once scraped together $20 a month teaching English, joined Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg among the world’s 25 richest individuals. As of Nov. 9, he was No. 18, with a $29.7 billion fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires index.
Investors backing Ma are finding a very different entrepreneur than they’re used to. At 50, he’s about twice the age the Facebook and Google millennials-turned-billionaires were when they took their companies public.
Far from flaunting his tech credentials, Ma portrays himself as computer illiterate.
“I have never written one code, never made one sale to a customer,” he said at a conference in 2010.
And by infusing his record-breaking IPO with ambivalence toward shareholders, Ma underscores the potential riches and the risks of investing in China.
Pursued by three other Chinese tech billionaires, he dominates the nation’s e-commerce industry. Not content with that crown, the adherent of tai chi and admirer of fictional folk hero Forrest Gump wants to transform Alibaba into a global marketplace — while keeping the company under his thumb.
“Shareholders will have about as much say in how their company is run as the people of China do in the running of their country,” says David Webb, a Hong Kong-based investor, shareholder activist and former director of the Hong Kong stock exchange.
Before the New York IPO, the Hong Kong bourse had declined to list Alibaba Group under a structure that gave Ma and his managers control even though he wound up owning less than 8 percent of the stock after the offering.
That didn’t seem to bother fans when the shares started trading on the NYSE. Alibaba’s $231 billion market capitalization suddenly made the company Ma had founded in his apartment with $60,000 in seed money more valuable than Facebook and larger than Amazon.com and eBay combined.
Among tech icons, only Apple, Microsoft and Google had larger market values. By Nov. 9, after better-than-forecast second-quarter results, Alibaba’s capitalization had risen to $282.4 billion — overtaking General Electric and Wal-Mart to become the world’s seventh-biggest company.
Ma took time from his victory lap around New York to accept former president Bill Clinton’s invitation to address another passion: philanthropy.
After stepping down as chief executive in 2013 while remaining executive chairman, Ma is devoting time — and $3 billion of his IPO profits — to such causes as the Nature Conservancy’s China program, which he chairs.
Clinton told reporters that Ma has the clout to highlight China’s environmental and social problems.
“Jack has the chance to totally change the landscape,” Clinton said before the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in New York.
Ma wants to tackle the entire planet.
“In the past decade, we measured ourselves by how much we changed China,” he wrote to potential investors Sept. 5. “In the future, we will be judged by how much progress we bring to the world.”
Ma already enjoys being a big deal in the world’s most populous country and second-biggest economy. Alibaba has a larger potential customer base than the population of any nation except India.
Some 632 million Chinese out of the nation’s 1.37 billion people use the Internet, according to government data.
By next year, the government projects that number will reach 850 million. Of the 322 million of these netizens who shop online, 279 million, or 84 percent, were active Alibaba buyers as of June, the company reported. In the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, Alibaba reported that its active buyers had risen to 307 million.
Alibaba Group connects these legions in a variety of ways. Alibaba’s Taobao (“search for treasure”) Marketplace serves small businesses and individuals. Tmall.com provides electronic shop fronts for Nike, Microsoft and other companies to sell to Chinese consumers. Juhuasuan operates flash sales of everything from trousers to furniture.
Alibaba.com mainly links Chinese suppliers to foreign buyers. Alipay, a privately owned affiliate that’s not part of the listed Alibaba Group, functions as the equivalent of PayPal in processing 75 percent of the group’s transactions.
Alibaba’s customers trade anything and everything, from silkworms to Boeing 747s. The family of Ma Yu, a Starbucks barista in Ma’s home town, buys cooking oil, sacks of rice and toilet paper.
“It’s even cheaper than supermarkets,” she says, “and you get way more choice.”
Some $248 billion flowed through Alibaba’s retail portals last year, equal to 2.6 percent of China’s $9.38 trillion gross domestic product.
On Nov. 11, 2013, the Chinese twist on Valentine’s Day known as Singles Day, Alibaba logged $5.75 billion in transactions. By contrast, Cyber Monday 2013, the biggest U.S. e-commerce day, rang up less than $2 billion.
For this year’s Singles Day, Alibaba was even more ambitious, staging the promotion globally. According to Bloomberg Intelligence, it was targeting $8.2 billion in transaction volume — it hit $9.3 billion.
And Alibaba is making money: Profit tripled to $3.7 billion in the year ended March 31. While profit fell 39 percent in the three months ended Sept. 30, in part as a result of the cost of integrating new businesses, revenue jumped 54 percent in the quarter — beating analysts’ estimates.
“The growth potential of Internet companies in China is many multiples greater than in the U.S.,” says Shane Oliver, who helps manage $131 billion at AMP Capital Investors in Sydney. “Businesses which can take advantage of that, such as Alibaba, seem incredibly attractive.”
Ma isn’t the only billionaire tapping China’s Web-savvy consumers. Robin Li, 45, was China’s second-richest man as of Nov. 9, with a fortune of $17.2 billion, after founding the search engine Baidu. Ma Huateng, 43, who was worth $15.6 billion on that date, has expanded Tencent Holdings into China’s top instant-messaging service.
Jack Ma differs because he’s determined to look beyond China. He’s created sites in English, Portuguese and Russian and made Alibaba the leading e-commerce portal in Brazil and Russia, even though it doesn’t have a single employee in either country.
Alibaba is trading American seafood and cherries in California and Washington, and Ma is bent on U.S. expansion.
“We’re coming here to help a lot of small businesses,” he said before the IPO. Ma wasn’t available to comment for this article, according to Alibaba spokesmen.
Ma may not find it easy to replicate his achievements overseas, says Don Gimbel, global portfolio manager at Geneva Investment Management.
“Jack Ma is one of a kind — a visionary in China,” says Gimbel, whose firm manages $8 billion. “But he is entering the world of the international big boys, where competition becomes larger and margins become smaller.”
Ma has battled — and beaten — one big boy, albeit on Chinese turf. In 2002, eBay, led by then-CEO Meg Whitman, burst into China by acquiring a local e-commerce business. Ma and his partners waived fees on their Taobao site — letting customers do for free what eBay charged for.
Ma positioned himself as the homegrown hero.
“EBay is a shark in the ocean; we are a crocodile in the Yangtze River,” he told his troops. “If we fight in the ocean, we will lose, but if we fight in the river, we will win.”
Ma won in 2006, when eBay announced it would close its site, which by then was unprofitable.
As Alibaba grows, Ma is pushing the company outside its comfort zone. Since 2012, Alibaba has announced deals totaling more than $16 billion, taking stakes in U.S. ride-share service Lyft and the Singapore postal service.
In China, it agreed to buy half of the Guangzhou Evergrande professional soccer team. It also bought 60 percent of movie producer China Vision Media, which it renamed Alibaba Pictures Group.
On Oct. 27, Ma told a conference in Laguna Beach, Calif., that he’s looking for partners in Hollywood to help acquire more content for smartphones and tablet computers. He and Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the same conference that they’re open to collaborating on projects involving mobile payments.
Alibaba’s finance affiliate is expanding as well. In April, it created Zhao Cai Bao, a platform for small businesses and individuals to borrow directly from investors. In September, it acquired a bank license in Ma’s home city, Hangzhou.
“You can’t exaggerate how much influence Jack has,” says Guo Guangchang, a fellow billionaire who heads Shanghai-based conglomerate Fosun Group, which is a partner in the banking venture.
Some shareholders are leery of Ma’s omnipresence — not least because “customers first” has become an Alibaba mantra.
“Putting the shareholders first is capitalism’s biggest mistake,” Ma told Chen Xiao-Ping, a professor at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, last year. “Shareholders do not have a long-term vision for the company.”
Ma explained his philosophy in his pre-IPO letter. The only way to ensure long-term rewards for shareholders is to sustain value for customers, making them No. 1, he wrote. Employees come next because they’re crucial to satisfying customers.
“We respect and are grateful for investors who support us with their precious capital,” he wrote.
And yet, Ma has made sure no outside shareholders can threaten his control, even though Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank holds 32.4 percent of the stock and Yahoo owns 15 percent after the IPO.
According to Ma, his management partnership ensures decisions aren’t made based on short-term revenue or profit.
“It exists to safeguard our mission, values, vision and culture,” Ma wrote.
In an interview with Bloomberg Television on the day of Alibaba’s IPO, Ma was diplomatic in assessing his relationship with China’s leaders.
“Being a global company, dealing with any government is difficult,” he said. His solution: “Always try to stay in love with the government, but don’t marry them.”
The normally garrulous Ma has also said little publicly about his early life. The son of traditional musician-storytellers, he was born in 1964, two years before Mao Zedong’s regime plunged into the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The anti-capitalist movement uprooted millions, slowed economic growth and threw the country into turmoil.
When Mao died in 1976, order was slowly restored and adventurous tourists began to trickle into the country. Ma was lucky enough to live in Hangzhou, 100 miles southwest of Shanghai, where the West Lake, with its stone bridges and pagoda-studded hillsides, ranks as one of China’s prime attractions.
In 1977, at age 13, Ma heard that foreigners had arrived in the city. For the next nine years, he woke at 5 a.m. and cycled to the Hangzhou Hotel — now a Shangri-La — to master English by acting as a tour guide, according to TV interviews he has given.
After twice failing university entrance exams, Ma won a place at Hangzhou Teachers College. He studied English and met his future wife, Zhang Ying.
Ma graduated in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in English and taught the language at Hangzhou Dianzi University. His charisma and passion for dancing and singing in English made him popular, says former colleague Yu Lili.
“The first time I heard a foreign song that’s not Russian was from him,” she says.
In 1992, reformist leader Deng Xiaoping urged entrepreneurially minded Chinese to start businesses. Two years later, Ma, who was 30 at the time, quit teaching and began a translation company. He named it Haibo, meaning “vast like the sea.” The English name was Hope.
To subsidize early losses, Ma bought plastic flowers and toys to sell in Hope’s office. By the end of 1994, the company broke even.
Ma had kept in touch with foreigners he’d met giving tours. In 1995, he visited Seattle and encountered his first computer. When he typed beer into a search engine, he found no reference to the beverage in Chinese.
Returning to China, he created a simple Web page with his translation company’s contact number and price list. Within a day, he got five inquiries from overseas. It was then that he grasped the power of the Internet.
Ma, his wife and 16 co-founders, including Vice Chairman Joe Tsai, set up Alibaba.com as an online yellow pages in 1999. He persuaded SoftBank, Goldman Sachs and other big names to help raise $25 million the next year.
In 2002, Alibaba became profitable. In 2005, at the height of his eBay war, Ma persuaded Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang to invest $1 billion for a 40 percent stake.
However much Ma changes global commerce, his impact on his home town of 8 million is clear.
A main thoroughfare, Wenyi West Road, is now a 10-lane superhighway bordered by construction that crowds out rice paddies.
Alibaba’s 1.6-million-square-foot campus, designed by Hassell architects, is a centerpiece. Ma monitors the well-being of his 22,000-strong global team, logging on to the digital bulletin board under his pseudonym, Feng Qingyang, a swordsman from his favorite martial-arts novel, says Mary Cao, a former Alibaba executive.
When employees complained online that Alibaba had stopped providing shuttle buses, Ma swiftly quelled the protests, Cao says. Rather than restoring the buses, Ma offered the vision that one day Alibaba would make employees rich enough to commute in their own cars.
“It was brilliant,” she says. “He draws up blueprints to motivate people. And, of course, a lot of those goals he manages to realize in the end.”
The full version of this Bloomberg Markets article appears in the magazine’s December issue.