Spotlight on Alibaba CEO Zhang as Jack Ma begins countdown with retirement



BEIJING / SHANGHAI (Reuters) – In contrast to his charismatic boss, Jack Ma, Alibaba (BABA.N) President Daniel Zhang is not usually someone who attracts attention, let alone that he makes kung fu movies with superstars or dances in public.

FILE PHOTO: Alibaba Founder and Chairman Jack Ma (L) talks to CEO Daniel Zhang during the Bellings Ceremony of the NYSE during the 11.11 Global Shopping Festival of Alibaba Group in Beijing, November 11, 2015. REUTERS / Kim Kyung-Hoon / File Photo

Outside the company, little is known about Zhang, a gentle accountant who at work goes under the epithet "Xiaoyaozi" – the name of a character from a Chinese martial art novel that literally means "free and untied".

But he will have to step out of the shadows after Ma said he would leave his role as chairman in September 2019, handing over the reins from his technology giant of $ 420 billion.

"We do not know much about (Zhang), although he has been CEO for a while, because he is a very superficial person by nature, little known, he is happy that he is not in the spotlight," said Duncan Clark, managing director at BDA, advisor to Beijing and author of "Alibaba: The House that Jack Built".

The transfer of power, the first such transition for one of China's largest technology companies, will see Zhang, 46, elevated to the top of a vast empire that spans e-commerce, payments, fast food delivery and physical stores.

Zhang, who calls Alibaba's investor with Polish as a result of his years with global accountants Arthur Andersen and PricewaterhouseCoopers, has been CEO since 2015.

His fingerprints are in some of the company's most successful moves: he was an important architect of Alibaba & # 39; Singles Day & # 39 ;, the November 11 event that & # 39; the world's largest online shopping festival has become.

The company has added approximately $ 200 billion to its market value since becoming CEO, and has now achieved nine consecutive quarters of revenue growth above 50 percent while investing in food supply and offline retail and in Southeast Asia pushes.

Crucially, Zhang monitored the growth of the retail platform Tmall, which has grown into one of the company's main sources of income and is competing against the major Chinese e-commerce competitor JD.com Inc (JD.O).

But he also inherits a number of challenges. Despite the rising sales figures, Alibaba's profit margins have been put under pressure by increasing competition and heavy investments to fend off competitors. The company's shares have fallen more than 10 percent this year after a peak in June.

A global trade war also hinders Alibaba's ambitions for international expansion, including the United States.

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Zhang, who became a member of Alibaba in 2007, sees Alibaba as an integrated ecosystem that lures consumers with films, live streamed sports, fast food deliveries and news.

"Alibaba is more like all-in-one nowadays," he told investors and analysts during a call about the quarterly figures of the company in August.

Zhang, from Shanghai, said last year in an interview with the local company publication Yicai that he returned to the city once a week from the head office of Alibaba in Hangzhou to recharge and spend time with his wife.

He added that he had not bought a house in Hangzhou because he had no time. To relax, he likes to watch football and basketball.

Zhang – like Ma – has worked hard to promote the company since the IPO of 2014, appearing at the World Economic Forum in Davos and other global events.

But he does not have the same star power that the founders have in China's major technology companies, including Jack Ma, Baidu Inc & # 39; s (BIDU.O) Robin Li and Tencent Holdings Ltd & # 39; s (0700.HK) Pony Ma.

These three often headline technical conferences and even government events together. Ma even did a dance routine with Michael Jackson theme last year during an Alibaba jubilee, complete with a costume.

Zhang and his team, although working under the radar, "ready to take over", Ma said in a letter to the staff and shareholders.

Ma described Zhang as "extraordinary talent, business insight and determined leadership."

"His analytical mind is second to none, he keeps our mission and vision high, he embraces responsibility with passion and he has the courage to innovate and test creative business models," wrote Ma.

Reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing, Adam Jourdan and Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Edited by Gerry Doyle

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