New era at Alibaba as Jack Ma rides into the sunset

Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba group, speaks during an event to mark the 20th anniversary of Alibaba in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province. Jack Ma steps aside on September 10 as chairman of Alibaba, ending a spectacularly successful 20-year run during which the charismatic former English teacher's e-commerce company left a profound impact on China's economy. Photo: China OUT / AFP / STR

Jack Ma stepped aside as leader of the Alibaba Group on Tuesday, ending a spectacularly successful 20-year run during which the charismatic former English teacher's e-commerce company left a profound impact on China's economy.

Ma, who also turned 55 on Tuesday, said farewell in a speech in the eastern city of Hangzhou where Alibaba is based, thanking employees and predicting a smooth transition to a team of executives led by CEO Daniel Zhang.

"Today's is not Jack Ma's retirement. Its the start of passing on our system to another generation," Ma said in comments quoted by state media.

"This is not one person's choice. It shows the success of our system."

In a succession years in the making, Ma is stepping down as chairman of the company he founded in 1999 to focus on putting his $41 billion fortune toward philanthropic projects such as education.

Ma's departure opens a new chapter for a company that helped unleash massive Chinese consumer spending, creating opportunities for countless businesses large and small, and helped cement the internet's central role in Chinese daily life.

Along the way, the charismatic Ma became a global figure.

With his fluent English, globetrotting, and playful antics -- he channelled Michael Jackson in a dance routine two years ago -- Ma shattered the aloof image of the Chinese executive, putting a friendly face on China's economic rise as he rubbed shoulders with the world's business and political elite.

"His background as an English teacher, allied to his raw charisma including a keen sense of humour have cemented his place... as the face of Chinese entrepreneurs overseas," said Duncan Clark, author of "Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built."

"His influence as a symbol of Chinese entrepreneurship is unparallelled."

Rags to riches

Besides coming on his birthday, Ma's departure, fittingly for an instructor, fell on Teacher's Day in China, and on the same day Alibaba celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Ma was a cash-strapped entrepreneur when someone showed him the internet on a 1990s trip to the United States.

He launched various internet-related business projects in China that met with mixed success before convincing a group of Chinese and foreign friends to give him $60,000 to start a business-to-business e-commerce venture called Alibaba in 1999.

Today, Alibaba towers over Chinese e-commerce with more than half of domestic market share, international ambitions, and a dominant position in digital payments through affiliate Ant Financial.

US-listed Alibaba is now among the world's most valuable companies, worth $462 billion, according to Bloomberg data.

But Ma's successors face rising domestic competition just as growth in consumer spending is slowing along with China's economy.

Ma is expected to retain some advisory functions.

'A Team' takes over

In contrast to Ma, the 47-year-old Zhang, who took over as CEO in 2013, is a mild-mannered finance expert.

But Chinese media routinely refer to him as the operational brains who transformed idea-man Ma's sturdy little "tractor" into a "Boeing 747".

"The guys taking over are really top-tier," said Jeffrey Towson, an equity investor and professor at Peking University.

"This is the 'A Team'. You don't want to compete against them in anything."

Since Zhang took over operations, Alibaba has poured investment into new initiatives including bricks-and-mortar retail, cloud computing, digital media, the grocery sector, meal delivery, entertainment and advertising. Earnings have remained strong.

On Friday, Alibaba said it bought the e-commerce platform of fellow Chinese internet giant NetEase for around $2 billion, further strengthening its industry lead.

Alibaba and its imitators, however, have been accused of fostering rampant consumerism, traffic in counterfeit goods, and producing mountains of packaging-material refuse.

Ma himself has drawn barbs, including after he recently dismissed concerns that Chinese workers were toiling excessive hours, and over the revelation last year that he was a Communist Party member.

But he also has won plaudits for his philanthropy and self-deprecating ways, frequently recounting how he was rejected by Harvard "10 times".

While Ma has inspired strong devotion among employees and fans, Zhang eschews the limelight but is considered a hyper-competitive businessman.

"You must keep awake every minute; you need to keep your eyes open in your sleep," Zhang said last year.