Key Words: Alibaba; e-commerce; Taobao; Alipay
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BILLIONAIRE Jack Ma is to step down as CEO of Alibaba Group, the e-commerce empire he founded to tap the nation's online shopping potential, passing the reins to "a younger, better equipped" generation.
Ma, a former tour guide and English teacher and self-styled "China's Forrest Gump," said he would name a successor by May 10, when he switches to the role of executive chairman. He said most of Alibaba's leaders "born in the 1960s" would also pass their leadership responsibilities to younger colleagues.
"As a founder CEO, stepping down ... is a difficult decision. It's not because I wanted to take things easy (though the job of Alibaba CEO is no easy task), it's because I see that Alibaba's young people have better, more brilliant dreams than mine, and they are more capable of building a future that belongs to them," Ma wrote in an e-mail to employees.
Ma, reckoned to be worth US$3.4 billion by Forbes late last year, built his e-commerce empire from scratch and has steered it through numerous bumps.
In an interview with The New York Times, the 48-year-old acknowledged he was feeling the strain. "When I was 35, I was so energetic and fresh-thinking. I had nothing to worry about," he said, adding he would focus in his new role on broad strategic issues, corporate development and social responsibility.
"I will still be very active," he said. "It is impossible for me to retire."
Alibaba Group includes Alibaba.com, an online market for small businesses; Taobao, a consumer shopping site; and online payment platform Alipay.
Alibaba's online marketplaces boast at least 85 million registered users worldwide, trading in everything from imported almonds and precious jade to motorcycles and soft toys.
Ma, lean and down-to-earth, founded the group on the principle of championing small businesses, the bedrock of China's economy, in the battle against industry giants.
"My inspiration came from the American movie Forrest Gump," he told an American audience in 2009. "Forrest Gump is not a smart guy, but he is focused. He's not talented, but he is very, very hard-working, and he's very simple and opportunistic."
China's booming online market has proved hugely lucrative for Ma. Taobao beat off eBay Inc in China in the late 2000s by offering free listing services for its sellers.
Ma told Forbes magazine in 2005 that eBay "may be a shark in the ocean, but I'm a crocodile in the Yangtze River. If we fight in the ocean, we lose, but if we fight in the river, we win."
Ma's blend of gumption and brash hopefulness has made him a cult figure among entrepreneurs, taxi drivers and other ordinary Chinese. Hundreds of small business owners turn up in Alibaba shirts to hear him speak at "AliFest," an annual gathering of e-commerce fans and celebrity speakers.
Ma, a dog lover and avid tea drinker, is known to put on fake Mohawk wigs and kung fu outfits at company parties, but he also has a more Machiavellian streak, willing to do battle with the likes of eBay and Yahoo.
"I always remind myself that I can't pretend. I'm not as good as other people say I am. Nor am I as bad as other people say I am," he once told Hu Shuli, editor of Caixin Weekly.
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