The rise of Jack the gi­ant-slayer

Au­thor says in­ter­net ty­coon Ma knew right from the start that Alibaba was go­ing to lead the world

China Daily (USA) - - PEOPLE - By FU JING fu­jing@chi­nadaily.com.cn Yao Yueyao contributed to this story.

In the sum­mer of 1999, a slightly built 35-year-old sat in his apart­ment in Hangzhou a year af­ter US e-com­merce gi­ant eBay went pub­lic and Ama­zon on­line was de­vel­op­ing into a heavy­weight busi­ness player. He told a Bri­tish au­thor: “I am gonna be big­ger than them.”

That mo­ment was when Jack Ma, founder of the world’s e-busi­ness leader, Alibaba, first re­vealed his am­bi­tions to writer Dun­can Clark upon meet­ing him for the first time in Hangzhou, where his busi­ness is head­quar­tered.

Clark, who be­gan his own con­sult­ing busi­ness in China in 1994, re­called that Ma’s startup com­pany had hired fewer than 20 peo­ple.

Now things are rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent. From July to Septem­ber, for in­stance, Alibaba earned $5 bil­lion in e-com­merce rev­enue, which is more than Ama­zon and eBay com­bined in the same pe­riod.

With such rapid ex­pan­sion, Ma, who now em­ploys 40,000 peo­ple, has be­come a fre­quent guest of state lead­ers as var­ied as United States Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Bel­gium’s King Philippe. He has fre­quently de­bated e-com­merce, dig­i­tal econ­omy and so­cial progress on global stages.

Re­cently, his team an­nounced it was set­ting up a Euro­pean of­fice in Brus­sels, head­quar­ters of the Euro­pean Union.

Just be­fore Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s state visit to the United King­dom, then-Bri­tish prime min­is­ter David Cameron hired Ma as a con­sul­tant to the gov­ern­ment on busi­ness.

Since get­ting in touch with Ma nearly three decades ago, Clark, the writer, chair­man of Bei­jing-based BDA China Lim­ited, has been closely ob­serv­ing how this English teacher-turned busi­ness­man ful­filled his dream in build­ing up his busi­ness em­pire, against the mo­men­tous back­drop of a ten­fold in­crease in China’s per capita GDP dur­ing the pe­riod.

Clark spent a year in­cor­po­rat­ing his in­sights, ob­ser­va­tions and anec­dotes into a book of nearly 300 pages, Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built. It was writ­ten in English but has al­ready been trans­lated into Chi­nese, Span­ish, French and other lan­guages.

“Jack is an in­ter­est­ing com­bi­na­tion of hu­man­ity and am­bi­tion,” Clark told China Daily in Brus­sels re­cently.

That is the last­ing im­pres­sion Clark has of the ty­coon, now aged 52. In 1999, he was talk­ing al­ready very clearly about small and medium-size busi­nesses and now, he says his e-com­merce plat­form is still es­sen­tially a hub for small en­trepreneurs.

“So I think the rea­son for us­ing the word ‘house’, but not ‘em­pire’, is that he works for the small guys, the lit­tle guys,” Clark said, re­fer­ring to the English ti­tle of the book.

Clark said Ma main­tains a style of in­for­mal­ity and makes fun of his looks, his back­ground and even his mis­takes.

For ex­am­ple, ac­cord­ing to Clark, af­ter just af­ter the in­ter­net bub­ble boom, Ma re­al­ized he had a lot of prob­lems in his com­pany, and that it was ex­pand­ing too fast. He had an of­fice no more than the size of a nor­mal bed­room.

At the time, Ma had hired a for­eign ex­ec­u­tive but cut his of­fice to half its size.

“You know, many rich bosses in China have huge of­fices and heavy fur­ni­ture. Well, he is very in­for­mal in that sense. So I think he doesn’t bring peo­ple to his side by show­ing off,” Clark said. “His charisma is built on his hu­man­ity. Don’t mis­take it. He is very am­bi­tious.”

Even though Ma has made an im­pres­sion on Clark, he said this book is not for Jack Ma.

“I mean, it is an in­de­pen­dent book. I don’t have any con­nec­tion with Alibaba,” he said.

But Clark said he did in­vite Ma to Stan­ford Univer­sity in 2011 when the writer was a vis­it­ing scholar there. Ma came to speak and gave an in­ter­est­ing speech on his dis­pute with Ya­hoo.

Clark saw that time as a key mo­ment, as he was do­ing re­search on a pos­si­ble book on the in­ter­net rev­o­lu­tion in China, and the fo­cus would be on e-com­merce and so­cial changes in the coun­try.

“From that en­counter, I think Ma es­sen­tially stands be­tween two im­por­tant things — the rise of the pri­vate sec­tor in China and the rise of the in­ter­net,” Clark said.

Though Clark in­tended to write the book in 2011, the real im­pe­tus came af­ter Alibaba’s suc­cess­ful IPO in 2014, though the stocks started go­ing down soon be­fore com­ing back again.

“I think it was the IPO made peo­ple re­al­ize that Alibaba is re­ally a story,” Clark said, adding that CBS filmed and in­ter­viewed Ma quite a long time ago, but didn’t run the hour­long pro­gram be­cause peo­ple in CBS asked “Is this com­pany re­ally that big?”

Only when the IPO hap­pened, did it fi­nally broad­cast the pro­gram, which it had put to­gether a year and a half be­fore.

Af­ter get­ting a pub­lish­ing house’s green light, Clark con­tacted Alibaba, which gave him ac­cess to the com­pany so he could come to visit, talk to em­ploy­ees and do re­search.

But he has not seen Ma him­self dur­ing the writ­ing of the book, say­ing that he will one day write his own book so no one would mis­un­der­stand him.

“And af­ter we did so much re­search on all of his speeches, there is so much of Jack’s (ma­te­rial) al­ready,” Clark said.

He said that in this book he is ac­tu­ally crit­i­cal of Ma and the com­pany in some as­pects, par­tic­u­larly on Ali­pay in 2011, which Clark felt was con­tro­ver­sial.

On Ma’s weak­nesses, Clark said some­times he is too blunt.

“I think some peo­ple will be mis­er­able, like pub­lic re­la­tions peo­ple: They can­not con­trol him,” Clark said. “He loves to be very in­stant, and very spon­ta­neous but also very strate­gic. He is like a stand-up co­me­dian and can be spon­ta­neous, depend­ing on the au­di­ence. He is also a mas­ter diplo­mat in a way.”

Even so, Clark said, Alibaba showed trust.

“Their trust is pretty good be­cause even in an Amer­i­can com­pany, if you say you are writ­ing a book, they would prob­a­bly re­quire you to send them a copy and give you some sus­pi­cion,” Clark said.

But Alibaba just told Clark that who­ever he wanted to talk to in the com­pany, he should just let them know. With such sup­port, Clark talked to for­mer em­ploy­ees, in­vestors and com­peti­tors to find the true Jack Ma. Even those who were fired by Ma were in­ter­viewed.

Ma started out as a tour guide with hum­ble be­gin­nings. And Clark said Ma is still a tour guide but on a world scale now.

“The G20 in Hangzhou was fan­tas­tic im­agery. He is the guide who grew up with tourists and now he’s grow­ing up with pres­i­dents of coun­tries and CEOs,” Clark said.

“He re­ally got this pas­sion” for in­tro­duc­ing China, Clark said. “I think he is very proud of Chi­nese his­tory and cul­ture.

“I think, in a way, he is per­form­ing the same role he is al­ways per­form­ing to send his mes­sage to trust in the in­ter­net and small busi­nesses.”

Clark said Ma has a global view on char­i­ta­ble un­der­tak­ings, and has been heav­ily in­flu­enced by Bill Gates and War­ren Buf­fett.

“He sees him­self as a global cit­i­zen, and again, as a tour guide. His English is good enough to com­mu­ni­cate, so peo­ple are drawn to him.”

Buried in his work, Ma, ac­cord­ing to Clark, cares about his own health and has his per­sonal trainer trav­el­ing with him. He also med­i­tates.

“He is sur­pris­ingly re­laxed, and some­times you see he is tired. He trav­els a lot,” Clark said. “He doesn’t seem stressed, and he is very re­laxed on stage, even with Pres­i­dent Obama.”

Ac­cord­ing to Clark, Ma is a nat­u­ral per­former and loves be­ing with peo­ple and crowds.

“He said he doesn’t want to be fa­mous, that he re­grets run­ning Alibaba,” said Clark. “But this is just show­man­ship.”

Jack is an in­ter­est­ing com­bi­na­tion of hu­man­ity and am­bi­tion.” Dun­can Clark, Bri­tish au­thor

FU JING / CHINA DAILY

Bri­tish au­thor Dun­can Clark says Jack Ma es­sen­tially stands be­tween two im­por­tant things — the rise of the pri­vate sec­tor in China and the rise of the in­ter­net.

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