Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma, who on Tuesday announced to employees his plans to step down as chief executive officer, has been thinking about retirement for a while. In June, Ma told me and my colleague Frederik Balfour about his interest in taking a step back from his role in running China’s largest e-commerce company. “Some day Jack Ma is going to retire—maybe not very long [from now],” he said then. “Life is so short. I don’t want to be 80 years old and still running this company.”
Now he is following through on that promise. Ma, who turned 48 in September, will retire as CEO this spring, the company announced on its Alizila website. “Stepping down as CEO is a difficult decision, for this could be confounding especially for someone of my age who should be at the height of his career,” Alizila reported Ma saying in a letter to employees. But, he added, “at 48 I am no longer ‘young’ for the Internet business.”
It also shows how far the e-commerce pioneer has come since his days as an upstart, when he battled such giants as EBay (EBAY) and the U.S. government over counterfeit products. Today the Alibaba Group includes Taobao, the largest e-commerce site in China; Tmall.com, a consumer shopping site; and Alipay, an electronic payments service. As of last year, Taobao and Tmall.com accounted for 71 percent of consumers’ online purchases in China, according to research firm Analysys International. Shortly before our interview, Ma reached a deal with Yahoo! (YHOO) and another large shareholder, Softbank (9984:JP), cutting their Alibaba voting rights.
What’s next for Ma? Even after a replacement (still to be named) takes his place as CEO in May, Ma will stay on as executive chairman. According to Alizila, he will “focus his attention on setting strategic direction, helping to develop managerial talent within the company’s ranks, and strengthening Alibaba’s social-responsibility efforts.”
There’s also still the matter of an initial public offering for Taobao, Alibaba’s popular consumer e-commerce business in China. An IPO isn’t imminent, he said in June, but is likely within five years. It’s hard to see Ma staying in the background when that happens.
By ceding day-to-day control, though, Ma will have time to look beyond the world of Alibaba. The Alizila article doesn’t mention what he might do, but in the interview last June, Ma gave some hints. “I have a lot of interests,” he said. For instance, he has worked with movie star Jet Li to promote tai chi. Ma said his other interests include movies, private-equity investment, environmental protection and traditional Chinese medicine. “I still have not decided what to do yet, but I have decided I am going to enjoy some other things apart from the business,” he said. “For the past 13 years, I have been building up the Alibaba Group. Now I think there are a lot of things I can do after Alibaba.”
Ma also stressed that taking a less active role in Alibaba would be a sign of strength for Alibaba. “If the founder cannot leave the company,” he said in the interview, “this company is not healthy.”