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Jack Ma’s retirement from Alibaba — End of an era, or is it just the beginning?

Retirement or not, Ma has his control, and he’ll always retain his power. A formal retirement and a relief from administrative duties would give him the chance to build his legacy beyond Alibaba as a do-gooder.

November 22, 2019 / 11:55 AM IST

The most celebrated Chinese entrepreneur Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma formally hung up his boots on September 10. At 55, he decided to say good bye to the technology giant he painstakingly built over the past two decades, all for philanthropy. His focus: Education in rural areas.

Truth is, founders do not retire at 55. And, it is more unusual in China where they prefer to work as long as possible.

Then, why did Ma?

One theory suggests that Ma wanted to see how well the team of next generation leaders manage to function and take Alibaba forward. Ma has trained a bunch of young people – in their 30s and 40s – across different group companies of Alibaba who are now heading respective businesses.

Besides, Daniel Zhang, 47, who will succeed Ma, is an Alibaba veteran who was part of the core team that created Alibaba’s most successful Single’s Day – a $25 billion sales concept bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday put together. Two other key executives, as pointed out by Caixin Global, who are seen as future leaders are Jiang Fang, 34, and Hu Xiaoming, 40.

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But none of them are Ma. The void that comes with Ma’s retirement will not be easy to fill. And chances are the estimated 1,00,000 employees of Alibaba may not have the same enthusiasm like before. Also, what happens if Zhang and his team fail to keep up with the expectations and the pace that Ma himself had set?

This is probably why Ma decided to retire earlier than any of the Chinese entrepreneurs. This gives him time to test the GeNext leaders he trained and time to make a comeback, if need be.

Such a thing, of course, is not without a precedent. In India, we have had NR Narayana Murthy, co-founder of Infosys, make a comeback to put the IT giant back on track that he once founded. Nandan Nilekani too has made a comeback of sorts to Infosys.

An early retirement gives Ma more time to experiment with future leaders, rewire if needed, to ensure Alibaba continues to grow for a century or more, when he would not be there.

There’s an interesting take by Chinese Internet veteran Fang Xingdong, who is seen as an Alibaba critic. In a social media post, he wrote: “As long as Jack Ma has the lifetime partnership, he will be in charge of the Alibaba empire.”

Terming it Ma’s “third retirement”, Xingdong said the first was in 2006, when Ma moved on from his role as president, and the second in 2013, when the role he gave up was chief executive. “I can’t help but wonder what Jack’s fourth retirement would be like,” Xingdong wrote.

Interestingly, Ma is not letting go of his influence. Thanks to the extremely complex holding structure of Alibaba Group and its companies, he will keep control in Alibaba Group Holdings through variable-interest entities (VIEs). As The Wall Street Journal reported, Alibaba’s licences to operate websites in China were held by “VIEs controlled by Mr Ma and Mr Xie” (Simon Xie is a co-founder of Alibaba).

On top of that, there is a 38-member partnership that ultimately controls the Alibaba Group companies.

Retirement or not, Ma has his control, and he’ll always retain his power. Just that the formal retirement and a relief from administrative duties would give him a clean slate to start another phase of entrepreneurship, taking the route of philanthropy to build his legacy beyond Alibaba as a do-gooder.

This can only be summed up well by quoting Ma. In a recent interview to The New York Times, Ma said his retirement is not “the end of an era but the beginning of an era”.

It truly is a beginning.
Sounak Mitra is an Associate Editor, Moneycontrol. He has been writing on corporate issues and policy for more than 15 years, having previously worked with Mint, Business Standard, Mergermarket, The Telegraph and The Times of India.

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