Jack Ma, the former English teacher who built one of the world’s most influential e-commerce businesses, said he will step down as Alibaba’s executive chairman next week to focus on philanthropy, the New York Times reported.
Alibaba transformed how the Chinese people shop and make purchases, and made Ma the richest man in the world’s most populous country. His net worth is estimated at $40 billion.
Ma is retiring at a time internet companies like Alibaba have fallen under tighter government scrutiny, as the industry plays an increasingly important role in the country’s economy. He is the first among a generation of Chinese internet entrepreneurs to leave the companies they’ve founded.
News of the executive’s departure comes amid a tumultuous period the industry. Liu Qiangdong, the billionaire founder of online retailer JD.com, was arrested on rape charges last week on a business trip to Minneapolis. Another Chinese internet giant, Tencent Holdings, which owns some of the biggest game franchises in the world, posted a rare drop in profits last month as it confronts tighter government regulations.
The charismatic Ma told the Times that he plans to retire on Monday, at the age of 54, saying this marks “the beginning of a new era.” His departure completes a management transition that began in 2013, when Daniel Zhang took over as chief executive. Zhang is considered a likely successor to Ma.
Ma recognized an opportunity in 1999 to play matchmaker for small and medium-size Chinese manufacturers, which lacked access to other businesses around the globe that were looking for products as varied as bamboo toothpicks, bath towels and machine tools.
The company took off in 2003 with the launch of the Taobao marketplace, where merchants sold directly to consumers. Online payment service Alipay helped speed these transactions in a country where few people had credit cards.
In its most recent quarter, Alibaba reported a 60% increase in sales even though profits fell. Its annual revenues approach $40 billion.
Alibaba sought closer ties to Hollywood in recent years. It took a minority equity stake in Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners, announcing plans to co-produce and finance films for global and Chinese audiences. Before that, Alibaba Pictures had invested in tentpoles such as Paramount/Skydance’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation as well as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows and Star Trek Beyond.
The company’s head of Alibaba Digital Media & Entertainment Group outlined an aggressive growth strategy that anticipated spending$7.2 billion on content through 2019. Alibaba also has holdings in media assets, such as the South China Morning Post and a Twitter-like social media site Weibo.
Ma made headlines in the U.S. after meeting with president-elect Donald Trump and promising to bring one-million small U.S. businesses onto his platform to sell goods to Chinese consumers.