While Time magazine was busy weighing up the Pope and Edward Snowden, the Financial Times has been looking elsewhere for its most influential figure this year. The business paper has given its ‘person of the year’ title to Jack Ma, founder of China’s e-commerce titan, Alibaba. The FT calls Ma the “godfather of China’s scrappy entrepreneurial spirit” and a “true innovator” in a land of cloners.
While 2013 was the year that Jack Ma stepped down from being Alibaba’s CEO – moving into the chairman’s chair – it has also been a year of major changes at Alibaba. And those changes are ones being driven by Ma in his new, more expansive role. It’s a two-pronged diversification: Alibaba is getting a lot more social, making big investments in Sina Weibo, a cool music-streaming service, and even a flirting app; plus it has been pioneering online personal investment services that are shaking up China’s state-owned banks.
Ma – a diminutive but charismatic figure – started Alibaba in his apartment in 1999, before China’s e-commerce industry had even started and at a time when few Chinese were even using the internet. Alibaba now runs China’s top two e-commerce sites – Tmall and Taobao – as well as the nation’s top e-payments service, Alipay. It also has the business-to-business global sourcing marketplace Alibaba.com, which gave the company its name.
The FT also acknowledges Ma’s commitment to environmental issues. This summer at a massive event in a sports stadium in Hangzhou, where Alibaba is based, Jack Ma gave his final speech as Alibaba CEO. After signing a song (karaoke is huge in China) and giving his speech, Ma reminded everyone that society cannot live – and business cannot prosper – when the environment has been ruined by reckless development. Pollution is on the minds of many Chinese daily, most visibly in air pollution that’s almost always at ‘hazardous levels’, and at times off-the-charts unbreathable.
Ma explained to the FT over the phone:
In China, because of problems in water, air, and food safety, in 10 or 20 years we will face a lot of health problems, like increased cancer. So that is one area well I will invest my money and time. My second focus is people’s culture and education – if we don’t do this then young Chinese people grow up with deep pockets but shallow minds.
See FT’s full profile of Ma here (no paywall).
(Editing by Paul Bischoff)