"We will continue with our mission, which is to make it easy to do business anywhere. Now we need to figure out how to realise our mission in this digital era," Zhang said.

By Ian Horswill


Posted on September 10, 2019

As Jack Ma steps down as Chairman of Alibaba Group at a farewell 55th birthday party on 10 September in the 80,000-capacity Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre to the accompaniment of music and celebrity performances, minds turn to his successor – Daniel Zhang.

Daniel Zhang has been Alibaba CEO since May 2015 and a director since September 2014. The 47-year-old Zhang takes charge of a US$460 billion business that is seeing the ecommerce market – its core business – slow markedly.

Zhang, who began his career as an auditor with Arthur Andersen after graduating in finance at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, joined Alibaba in August 2007 as Chief Financial Officer of Taobao Marketplace where he remained until June 2011. He took on the additional role of general manager for Tmall.com in August 2008, until his appointment as president of Tmall.com in June 2011 when it became an independent platform.

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He launched Singles’ Day in 2009, as China’s answer to US’ Black Friday. Sales on Singles’ Day surpass the total combined sales of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Zhang’s English is very good but he is more softly spoken than the flamboyant Ma, who has become the most recognised Chinese entrepreneur.

“We’ve planned this succession for a long time. This is our 20th year,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek in an interview. We have already built a very solid foundation in ecommerce, in logistics, in payments and in cloud computing. For the next 20 years, every business is moving into the digital era. We will continue with our mission, which is to make it easy to do business anywhere. Now we need to figure out how to realise our mission in this digital era. We will develop more businesses, more services to address the pain points of our customers. We want to be the digital infrastructure for our business partners to empower them to succeed in this digital era.”

Prior to joining Alibaba, Zhang was Chief Financial Officer of Shanda Interactive Entertainment Limited, an online game developer and operator listed on Nasdaq, from September 2005 to August 2007. From 2002 to 2005, he was a senior manager of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Audit and Business Advisory Division in Shanghai.

“My father used to be an accountant and he graduated from the same university. But he didn’t want me to be an accountant. This is a very funny story. After I joined Arthur Andersen, I had a joke with him. I said, ‘For many years you don’t want me to be an accountant, then I became an auditor.’ I was never an accountant for even one day,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek.

When Arthur Andersen, one of the world’s largest multinational companies in 2001, was destroyed by the Enron scandal.

“You are like a soldier at the frontier. Then your headquarters disappears, that’s a very unique experience. This experience is so important, so unique. Today, you know we do many mergers and acquisitions at Alibaba. I always say to my team, when we invest or acquire business, we need to understand the experience of the people in the acquired companies. We need to give them respect. We need to give them guidance, because they are good men, they are good people. If we don’t give them guidance, then they will basically go nowhere and maybe the best option is to leave. But if we can embrace them, then people will stay.”

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Alibaba paid US$2 billion for China’s second-biggest cross-border ecommerce platform NetEase Kaola on September 2.

“Alibaba is confident about the future of China’s import ecommerce market, which we believe remains in its infancy with great growth potential,” said Zhang.

Zhang told Bloomberg about the importance of creating or acquiring businesses.

“I believe every business has a life cycle. You have to be innovative and create new businesses with new technology, with a new model. Then that can make our entire business sustainable. We always say that we want to build a sustainable, long-term business. But most of it is not evergreen. I strongly believe that if we don’t kill our existing business, someone else will. So I’d rather see our new business kill our existing business.”

Zhang, who said he evaluates his performance annually, said he holds a quarterly class to groom the future leaders of Alibaba.

“Every year I spend quite a lot of time on people, including the recruitment of new people. I don’t do this for a specific position. If we have a vacant position, then that’s the job of my business executives and also our HR people. I’m not involved. I want to find some people with good experience and good potential for the future. Every year I get a couple of people, not many, maybe four or five, six people to join us. If we look back three or four years, we’ve already got some people who are now leading one particular business in our group and becoming a new business leader. Our businesses are expanding and we need new leaders. We need young people with more energy and also different skill sets who also share the same values with us. We try to find people in different industries. I’m looking at people with very strong leadership skills and high potential.

“I have a self evaluation every year for myself. I look at how many new businesses I incubate, and secondly, how many new people I find,” he said.

Outside work, he loves watching sport, particularly basketball.

“I’m a huge (Houston) Rockets fan, starting from the Yao Ming days. Actually long before that I liked (Hakeem) Olajuwon when they became champions 1994 and 1995. I’m a big sports fan, I watch a lot of games. But my favourite star, in the entire NBA history, is Reggie Miller. He’s a killer.””

As for famous quotes, Zhang once said.

“You must keep awake every minute; you need to keep your eyes open in your sleep. You must keep learning and innovating,” he once said.