Jack Ma, the charismatic founder of Alibaba, surprised many when he announced his plan to step down as CEO of the Chinese e-commerce giant in May, and now the company has named his successor: 13-year veteran Jonathan Lu, its Group Executive Vice President and head of data.
Since establishing the company in 1999, Ma, a former English teacher, built it into a veritable powerhouse. The company has 24,000 employees, is estimated to be worth $40 billion and surpassed Amazon and eBay combined in terms of sales volume last year.
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Ma will remain involved in his capacity as Chairman, but 43-year-old Lu — who takes over on May 10, the date of Alibaba’s tenth anniversary — will pick up the reins as part of Ma’s intention to “make room for a younger crop of leaders”.
Lu joined the company in 2000 and, after working for its flagship Alibaba.com site building up its sales force, he established Alibaba’s Alipay payments business before moving on to its Taobao marketplace service. He became CEO of Alibaba.com in 2011, and took his VP role and position of head of data and president of the controversial Aliyun Mobile OS last year.
Alibaba’s own site describes Lu as “a low-profile leader, an operations whiz with the ability to get things done”, and a company-wide email from Ma announcing the appointment of Lu said:
Jonathan and I have worked together for 13 year. During that time, he founded the Alibaba.com Guangdong sales team; was the founding president of Alipay; served as president of Big Taobao; stepped in as CEO of the then-listed Alibaba.com. He is currently the Group’s chief data officer and president of Aliyun Mobile OS.
He is passionate about and familiar with the Group’s various businesses. Not only has he contributed to building our culture and organization and developed many talented people, he also possesses a unique leadership style and charisma.
Given his variety of roles and history with Alibaba, and focus on data and mobile, Lu certainly has the necessary credentials and we can probably expect him to rule in a much less out-spoken manner than Ma, who was always a quote away from creating a headline or article from media.
Alongside those lines, a statement from Lu stressed openness and transparency, saying that the company “must not forget our purpose and keep in mind the premise of ‘Customer First’.”
Announcing his decision in January, Ma told employees that it was a difficult one but that he felt that, aged 48, he was no longer “young” enough for the Internet industry.
“I believe that doing what makes oneself happy, staying within one’s own limits and being a good partner to one’s more capable colleagues, is the right thing for me to do,” he wrote.
Here’s Ma’s memo in full:
I am extremely pleased to announce that Alibaba Group’s executive board has appointed Jonathan Lu to succeed me as CEO. Jonathan will have overall responsibility for all Alibaba Group businesses, other than Alibaba Small and Micro Financial Services Group (in the process of establishment). I will transition my responsibilities to him by May 10, 2013, upon the 10th anniversary of Taobao.
Jonathan and I have worked together for 13 years. During that time, he founded the Alibaba.com Guangdong sales team; was the founding president of Alipay; served as president of Big Taobao; stepped in as CEO of the then-listed Alibaba.com. He is currently the Group’s chief data officer and president of Aliyun Mobile OS. He is passionate about and familiar with the Group’s various businesses. Not only has he contributed to building our culture and organization and developed many talented people, he also possesses a unique leadership style and charisma. Jonathan has impressed with his curiosity and ability to grasp new ideas, his judgment and decisiveness, and his strong execution capabilities. Most importantly, his 13 years with Alibaba Group have shaped him to approach everything with optimism and perseverance, as well as loyalty to and appreciation for small businesses and consumers.
Serving as Alibaba Group CEO is an extremely challenging and difficult job, especially succeeding a founder CEO like me. One can only imagine the responsibilities and pressure that Jonathan will shoulder. Therefore,I deeply appreciate the tremendous sacrifice and commitment he is making. I strongly believe that with all of your support and assistance, he can lead Alibaba Group to achieve even more seemingly impossible things in our pursuit of building a business ecosystem.
This is the first time we’ve implemented our CEO succession plan, and there will be many more to come.Each CEO and leader will step into this role with his or her own sense of mission and responsibility. I would not have been able to serve 14 years as founding CEO if it weren’t for your support, assistance, guidance and tolerance. In the same way, all of your full support of Jonathan’s role as Alibaba Group CEO and Lucy Peng’s role as CEO of Alibaba Small and Micro Financial Services Group will be key to the success of our collective enterprise. Alibaba has never been only the CEO’s business, it is everybody’s business.
Beginning May 10th, I will focus on my responsibilities as executive chairman. This is also a new challenge for me, and I will strive to live up to everyone’s expectations in fulfilling my duties.
Fellow Aliren, together we have experienced countless challenges over the past 14 years. We hope for Alibaba to become a true social enterprise — of the society, by the society, for the society. Only by holding onto gratitude for yesterday and respect for tomorrow can we allow ourselves to truly assume the responsibility to improve society. Only by transforming Alibaba’s fortune into opportunities for countless entrepreneurs can we continue our journey of the next 88 years!
If not now, when?! If not me, who?!
Chairman, Alibaba Group
Headline image via PETER PARKS/Getty Images