Jack Ma said he would rather die on the beach than in his executive office at Alibaba, so he chose to retire as the chairman of the board of Alibaba on Sept. 10, 2019.
The decision, though a surprise to many, was a well-thought-out one for him, said the 54-year-old in a public dialogue at the Summer Davos Forum which concluded on Thursday.
“At the age of 54, I am a bit old in the Internet industry, but quite young for many other sectors,” he said.
“In the next 15 to 16 years, there’s still a lot of things I can do. I know it would be difficult for people at the age of 55 or 56, say 60, to leave. By then you would no longer be sure about your future, and you would hang on,” he said.
In Ma’s words, the retirement decision announced 11 days ago was anything but a retreat. It is actually “a step forward” for himself and the company.
PAPA of BABA
As the co-founder of the Internet giant (NYSE: BABA), Ma likes to describe his relationship with Alibaba as that of a parent to a child.
These days, he and his company are going through what he calls a weaning process.
The day Ma announced the decision, the stock market responded with price declines.
Shrugging off the fluctuations, Ma said the market would adapt to the change, and so would the company.
“It’s like weaning a child. It’s good for both the mother and the child. Even if her kid cried, she would not budge, as she knew it was a wise decision and a process of growing up,” he said.
Ma said his coming retirement had been planned for years.
Ma’s first major “letting-go” took place in 2013, when he stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO.
The decision was part of Ma’s succession plan for Alibaba, a company that he hoped could stay in business for at least 102 years, according to previous interviews.
Founded in 1999, Alibaba has grown into one of the world’s most profitable companies, valued at more than 400 billion U.S. dollars.
As the company is about to enter its second decade, Ma knows he has to delegate power to the younger generation.
“I’ve been fortunate to make it where I am today, but luck will not always accompany you. The best way to increase your luck is to give more opportunities to young people,” Ma said.
Considering the scale and influence of Alibaba, he said the company needs to be steered by someone who excels in systematic thinking, composure, and leadership.
Ma’s successor is Daniel Zhang who has been Alibaba’s CEO since 2015. “I was very touched when he agreed to take the post, as it is not an easy job,” Ma said.
“If the company runs into a problem, I’ll take a look and talk with them, but things are now in their hands,” he said.
A SEA OF GOSSIP
Rumors spread on the heels of the news of Ma’s retirement. Skeptics said he was forced to step down, while others claimed he had already shifted a large number of assets to other countries, planning to leave China.
“Gossip has been around us every day for the past 19 years. For someone who has a dream for the future, gossips, rumors, hardships and frustrations will always be part of your life,” he said.
No matter what people say, Ma says he does not care about the rumors. “To friends, you don’t need to explain. To non-friends, the more you explain, the worse the situation becomes,” he said.
Ma doesn’t want himself to be glorified. However, Alibaba’s success does not come without doubts and setbacks.
In 2000, Alibaba started to recruit workers. “We couldn’t get staff as the name of the company sounded strange, and many people thought e-commerce had no future in China.”
Attributing the company’s success to the good fortune which came from its desire to promote the progress of the society and help small enterprises and employees grow, Ma said he was lucky to find a competent team.
Depicting himself as a man without professional business and technology education, Ma said his experience of being a teacher played an important role in turning him into an entrepreneur.
Before starting Alibaba, Ma studied at Hangzhou Normal University after twice failing the national college entrance exams and became an English teacher after graduation.
“As a teacher, I know how to discover the potential in students, train them and cultivate them. Over the past 19 years, I spent a lot of time discovering talent, training and cultivating them as well,” he said.
“I’m most proud of Alibaba’s talent cultivation and cultural development,” Ma said.
An unparalleled legacy of Ma could be what he called “a legion of capable corporate leaders.” “If I am among the company’s first-generation leadership, we already have a blueprint for the fifth-generation leadership,” he said.
In his eyes, an extraordinary company is often made through the tough times.
Without surviving economic cycles, natural and man-made disasters, a company could hardly become “valuable,” he said.
“Over the past 19 years, too many people have just noticed our achievements, not knowing we have suffered many more setbacks than others,” he added.
“Being confident does not mean persuading oneself into believing tomorrow will be good. It means being capable of surviving when tomorrow is bad,” he said.
After Ma’s retirement news was released, curious netizens made a name card for him with many titles, such as teacher, charity volunteer and chairman of Alibaba’s poverty relief fund.
“The name Jack Ma is really like an IP (intellectual property),” he said.
Over the years, people have defined Jack Ma in many different ways, but for him, those definitions are not so relevant.
“I’m just an ordinary person who was born, grew up, started a business and developed it in Hangzhou,” he said. “Sometimes I just feel I was blessed and lucky enough to work with a group of amazing people to be able to get where we are today.”
Many of his colleagues say the spirit of a honey badger lives inside Ma. The animal has great perseverance in adverse conditions and is fearless.
“If you ask me to fight with somebody, don’t tell me how many people there are and who they are. Just tell me the time and place. I’m never afraid of challenges,” Ma said, adding that entrepreneurs should be courageous and never give up.
“Be the best version of yourself, not Jack Ma or anyone else.”
Ready to get back to where he started, Ma said if he was asked to make a name card for himself, it would be related to education.
Educators can share the most beautiful things in humans with others, and tell people how to deal with failure and face challenges. “This is the essence of education.”
Ma has met many people who are interesting, extraordinary or despicable. He said all their different personalities made him reflect on why they got to where they are today.
“Entrepreneurs should understand that knowing others is wisdom while knowing yourself is enlightenment,” he said.
In Ma’s opinion, education doesn’t have to be serious. Instead, it could be done in an interesting way. China’s liquor culture, for instance, is something worth learning. Other than that, Ma likes to engage in many other areas that make him happy, including public welfare and developing his new computer chip business.
As for Alibaba, Ma said he would never truly leave.
“An ordinary employee gives 12 hours a day to Alibaba while a vice president devotes 24 hours a day. For a partner like me, your whole life belongs to Alibaba,” he said.
“If I’m still around at the age of 80 or 90, and I sit on the beach, listening to the radio, and a news broadcast says that Alibaba had a good year, I think I will be very proud.” Enditem