Just as Jeff Bezos and his bald pate are synonymous with Amazon.com (AMZN) , Jack Ma and his broad but compressed head, often creased with a wily smile, are one and the same as the U.S. e-tailer's Chinese equivalent, Alibaba Group Holding (BABA) .
So what happens on Tuesday, September 10, the day that Ma is due to "retire"?
Although he is the face of the company, Ma is only one of 18 co-founders of Alibaba. He is, however, the lynchpin and charismatic figurehead.
Ma will be stepping down as chairman in favor of CEO Daniel Zhang, who becomes executive chairman on Tuesday. The company plans a celebration at the 80,000-seater Hangzhou Olympics Sports Center as Ma hands over the keys. September 10 is Ma's 55th birthday, and by happy coincidence is also Teachers' Day in China. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of Alibaba in Ma's apartment in April 1999.
Ma said he will pursue interests in education after his retirement, which he announced this time last year, prompting a 4% drop in Alibaba stock. He and eight other Chinese tycoons founded a Hangzhou-based college Hupan University in 2015, now known for producing Chinese tech "unicorns," companies with a market value of US$1 billion or more.
Ma himself is of course worth US$38.4 billion, according to Forbes, which makes him the richest person in China - most of the time. As of Monday, he is pipped by Pony Ma, the chairman of Tencent Holdings (TCEHY) , with a real-time fortune of US$38.8 billion.
Although Tencent began life making video games, it competes with Alibaba in many of its noncore interests such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing and autonomous cars. Tencent's market cap of US$417 billion has at times crested above Alibaba, although BABA's US$460 billion value now shows clear daylight, making it the most valuable company in Asia.
Tencent has invested in two of Alibaba's main rivals, JD.com (JD) and Pinduoduo. Those businesses are able to draw on Tencent's ubiquitous WeChat app to gain new users. Alibaba has been looking to expand internationally, for instance buying a controlling stake in Lazada, the dominant e-commerce site in Southeast Asia.
Alibaba's stock is up 28.9% in 2019, while Tencent has moved ahead only 9.0% this year. That's thanks in large part to tough restrictions by the Chinese authorities over licensing permission for new video games, Tencent's core business.
China's economic growth is slowing, and under heavy pressure as a result of the trade war. However, e-commerce has become a daily way of life to almost all urban Chinese. Despite many predictions that it can't keep going as it has, Alibaba continues to surprise with its growth.
Revenues were up 50.6% for the year through March 2019. Gross profit grew far slower though, up 20.0%, and operating income declined 15.5%. Alibaba is investing in new retail and customer services, and expensive new business lines like cloud computing are seeing revenues grow fast but yet to turn a profit.
The two Ma men, who are not related, both know how to play the political game in China. They were once summoned together for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who reminded them that however big their corporate empires may get, they operate only within the scope allowed them by their ultimate authority, the Communist Party (and of course its head, Xi himself).
Jack Ma famously studied English at the Hangzhou Teacher's Institute, in his hometown just outside Beijing, and got his first job as a lecturer at Hangzhou Dianzi University, teaching English and international trade. His first foray into the Internet came in the form of the China Yellow Pages, or CYP, which he founded in 1995 after an inspiring visit to the United States. That's where he first saw the Internet first-hand. Disappointed that none of the pages he had newly discovered were in Chinese, he started creating Web sites that were.
After a brief spell running an information/technology company as a spinoff from the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, he quit in 1999 to start Alibaba in his hometown, with a team of 17 friends and colleagues, including his wife, Cathy Zhang. Alibaba was at first purely a B2B marketplace, designed mainly to enhance exports for Chinese companies as it became clear China would join the World Trade Organization. Accession to the WTO came in 2001.
Ma and his team pushed Alibaba into consumer e-commerce in 2003. That was the year eBay (EBAY) entered China. In response, Alibaba created the consumer-to-consumer Taobao Marketplace, "Taobao" meaning "Digging for Treasure." Ma rejected a buyout offer from eBay, and went on to establish the higher-end consumer e-commerce site Tmall and the e-payments company Alipay, as well as numerous other subsidiaries.
Ma has benefited from strict Chinese control of the Internet. That has allowed him to expand Alibaba without full foreign competition. The efforts of eBay, notably, to conquer China failed. Despite buying the dominant Chinese auction site, EachNet, two years later then-CEO Meg Whitman announced the end of eBay's China experiment.
Alibaba's 2014 listing in New York remains the largest initial public offering in history. With the overallotment, the IPO raised US$25 billion. The company had been keen on listing in Hong Kong, where twin-class share offerings were not allowed. Alibaba's desertion stateside is often cited as a motivation for Hong Kong's rule change this year to allow dual-class shares, which allow tech founders to keep control of their companies while taking in public money. Scandalously, in my view.
Zhang, the new chairman and the CEO as of 2015, is an accountant by trade. "His analytical mind is unparalleled, he holds dear our mission and vision, he embraces responsibility with passion, and he has the guts to innovate and test creative business models," Ma said in announcing the move a year ago.
Ma will remain a director of Alibaba for another year, as well as the founding partner of the 38-person partnership that controls the company, separate from its board. It's highly unusual for a company founder (even if a co-founder!) to withdraw from the company so early in life. It remains to be seen how much control he will exert from behind the scenes. Or what new ventures he will start with his sizable personal war chest.
"Teacher Ma," as he is sometimes known within Alibaba, wants to get back in the classroom, although I'm sure it will be a digital one. I "want to return to education, which excites me with so much blessing because this is what I love to do," Ma said in his letter. "The world is big, and I am still young, so I want to try new things - because what if new dreams can be realized?!"