President Cyril Ramaphosa and Jack Ma at a meeting in Hangzhou. Picture: GCIS

INTERNATIONAL - 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.

In an interview with Bloomberg TV, 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, who turns 54 on Monday, has a net worth of more than $40 billion (R 605 bn)  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 recognized corporate leaders. 

Even after stepping down as chief executive officer 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 in the interview. “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 was born in September 1964 to Chinese traditional musician-storytellers living in Hangzhou, an ancient capital that’s become a global high-tech hub and bastion of entrepreneurship, in part because of Alibaba’s base there. He 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 initial public offering, the biggest ever. Ma was among the first foreign business leaders to meet with Donald Trump after his election.

Ma has thrived in the spotlight as he became a much sought-after guest for conferences around the world, even as tensions between China and the U.S. have risen over trade. 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.

As someone who has met the leaders of the world’s two largest economies, Ma sees his future philanthropy as a way to bridge the divide between them.

“People in China and America, one thing we have in common is the heart of love and respect,” Ma said. “This is a common language we have. The first tech revolution caused WWI, the second caused WWII, now we are a third revolution, what’s gonna happen? It should be a war against poverty, disease et cetera.”

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.

"I have full confidence in my team and in the partner structure which lots of investors don’t like," said Ma. "It’s the system which I think I have contributed to along with my team and this will be able to make the company last long."

- BLOOMBERG