Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview on the sidelines of the Xin Philanthropy Conference in Hangzhou, China, on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Hong Kong

Jack Ma, China’s richest man, is laying the groundwork for a future away from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., the company he co-founded and turned into an e-commerce juggernaut.

The Alibaba chairman said he is dedicating more of his time and fortune to philanthropy with the creation of a foundation in his own name focused on education, following in the footsteps of fellow billionaire Bill Gates. Ma has a net worth of more than $40 billion (Dh147 billion), according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

While Ma sees himself as an accidental executive who only entered the business world with Alibaba’s founding almost 20 years ago, he has become one of China’s most recognised corporate leaders. Even after stepping down as CEO in 2013, the former English teacher remains the public face of a company with a market value of more than $400 billion and interests spanning e-commerce and Hollywood film production to cloud computing and online payments.

“There’s a lot of things I can learn from Bill Gates. I can never be as rich, but one thing I can do better is to retire earlier,” Ma said. “I think some day, and soon, I’ll go back to teaching. This is something I think I can do much better than being CEO of Alibaba.”

When asked if that could happen this year, Ma shrugged and smiled. He didn’t indicate if he would give away his money or put it into a trust as other billionaires have done.

“You’ll know very soon. I’ve prepared a Jack Ma Foundation,” Ma said. “All these things that I’ve been preparing for 10 years.”

Ma started Alibaba.com in 1999 as a business-to-business marketplace, backed by $60,000 from 18 co-founders.

With savvy deals and an investment from SoftBank Group Corp., it’s now morphed into a behemoth that can make or break brands. Its customers use its e-commerce platforms to order products that last year saw package deliveries reach 55 million a day. Ma also controls Ant Financial, the online financial platform that runs China’s largest mobile payment system and money-market fund. The business has more than 870 million users via payment system Alipay and its affiliates.

Alibaba has one of the strongest management teams in corporate China and even if he steps down, Ma is likely to still have a role in setting top level strategy, said Brock Silvers, managing director of Kaiyuan Capital.

“When Jack Ma speaks longingly of retirement from Alibaba, there’s no reason not to take him at his word,” said Silvers. “On a day-to-day basis, Alibaba shareholders probably have little to fear should the charismatic Ma pull back a bit further.”

A focus on education wouldn’t surprise keen followers of Ma, who has spoken frequently of its importance to him and some of his shortcomings as a student, including failing China’s national university exam twice.

“I was not considered a good student but I improved, we keep on learning all the time. So I want to devote most my time to this,” Ma said.

During his time as chairman, he has helped guide growth at home and overseas while also spearheading its 2014 IPO, the biggest ever. Ma was among the first foreign business leaders to meet with Donald Trump after his election.

But he has also said in the past that he isn’t happy being the wealthiest person in China, where vast personal fortunes have only emerged in recent years and are subject to intense scrutiny.

If he were to leave the company he founded in a Hangzhou apartment, it would remain controlled by its partnership structure, which enables a group of executives at Alibaba and affiliates to decide on board nominations.

— Bloomberg