BEIJING – Jack Ma, who founded e-commerce giant Alibaba Group and helped launch China’s e-commerce boom, announced Monday he will step down as the company’s chairman next September.
In a letter released by Alibaba, Ma said he will be succeeded by CEO Daniel Zhang, an 11-year veteran of the company. Ma handed over the CEO post to Zhang in 2013 as part of what he said was a long-planned succession process.
Ma, a former English teacher, founded Alibaba in 1999 in an apartment in the eastern city of Hangzhou to connect Chinese exporters with foreign retailers. It expanded into consumer retailing, online finance, cloud computing and other services, becoming the world’s biggest e-commerce company by total value of goods sold across all its platforms.
Ma, who turned 54 on Monday, became one of the world’s richest entrepreneurs and one of China’s best-known business figures. The Hurun Report, which follows China’s wealthy, estimates his net worth at $37 billion.
Alibaba said Ma will remain a member of the Alibaba Partnership, a group of 36 people that has the right to nominate a majority of the company’s board of directors.
“This transition demonstrates that Alibaba has stepped up to the next level of corporate governance from a company that relies on individuals, to one built on systems of organizational excellence and a culture of talent development,” Ma said in his letter.
Ma said he wants to “return to education” but gave no details of his plans.
Alibaba is one of a group of companies including Tencent Holding Ltd., a games and social media giant, search engine Baidu.com Inc. and e-commerce rival JD.com that have revolutionized shopping, entertainment and consumer services in China.
Alibaba was founded at a time when few Chinese used the internet. As internet use spread, the company expanded into consumer-focused retailing and services. Few Chinese used credit cards, so Alibaba created its own online payments system, Alipay.
Ma, known in Chinese as Ma Yun, appears regularly on television. At an annual Alibaba employee festival in Hanzhou, he has sung pop songs in costumes that have included blonde wigs and leather jackets. He pokes fun at his own appearance, saying his oversize head and angular features make him look like the alien in director Steven Spielberg’s movie “E.T. The Extraterrestrial.”
Ma also became one of the best-known Chinese businesspeople abroad.
The company’s $25 billion initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange in September 2014 was the biggest to date by a Chinese company.
Zhang, Ma’s planned successor, is a former accountant who joined Alibaba in 2007 after working at Shanda Entertainment, an online games company. Zhang served as president of Alibaba’s consumer-focused Tmall.com business unit.
Alibaba’s e-commerce business spans multiple platforms including business-to-business Alibaba.com, which links foreign buyers with Chinese suppliers of goods from furniture to medical technology, and Tmall, with online shops for popular brands.
Alibaba launched a series of initiatives to keep counterfeit goods off its platforms following complaints by luxury brands, sporting goods makers and others.
Despite that, the French luxury company Kering, owner of brands including Gucci and Saint Laurent, accused Alibaba in a 2015 lawsuit of facilitating counterfeit sales. The two sides settled the dispute last year with an agreement to cooperate in combating trafficking in fakes.
Alipay became a financial company, Ant Financial, in 2014. Alibaba also has expanded into entertainment, set up its own film studio and invested in logistics and delivery services.
Alibaba reported profit last year of $9.8 billion.
The total value of goods sold across all of its platforms rose 28 percent over 2016 to 4.8 trillion yuan ($768 billion), according to the company.
Ma has faced controversy, including when it was disclosed in 2011 that Alibaba had transferred control over Alipay to a company controlled by Ma without immediately informing shareholders including Yahoo Inc. and Japan’s Softback.
Alibaba said the move was required to comply with Chinese regulations, but some financial analysts said the company was paid too little for a valuable asset. The dispute was later resolved by Alibaba, Yahoo and Softbank.
Corporate governance specialists also questioned the unusual structure of the Alibaba Partnership, which gives Ma and a group of executives more control over the company than shareholders.
Ma defended the arrangement as necessary to ensure Alibaba focuses on long-term development instead of responding to pressure from financial markets.