Alibaba's (BABA) competitive strengths, management and culture give reasons to think that it won't be badly hurt in the near-term by Jack Ma's upcoming departure.
At the same time, one can't brush off the risk that the loss of a visionary founder could eventually have major repercussions for a company squaring off against a slew of deep-pocketed and equally aggressive rivals.
On Monday morning, following media reports to the effect, Alibaba announced Ma would step down as its executive chairman in 12 months, and would leave the board following Alibaba's 2020 shareholder meeting. Daniel Zhang, who has been CEO since 2015 (Ma relinquished the role in 2013), will succeed Ma as chairman.
Alibaba's shares fell 3.7% on Monday to $156.36, and made fresh 52-week lows in the process. Shares are up about 1% on Tuesday as of mid-day, following news that Alibaba is forming an e-commerce and content services joint venture with three Russian firms -- Internet services firm Mail.ru, local telco MegaFon and sovereign wealth fund RDIF -- that will include the Russian version of its AliExpress site. The deal gives Alibaba a 48% stake in the JV, and also provides it with MegaFon's 10% stake in Mail.ru.
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Overall, Alibaba is down 8% during what has been a rough 2018 for Chinese tech stocks. Though earnings are depressed by aggressive spending and revenue continues growing at a pretty strong double-digit clip, Alibaba now trades for just over 20 times its fiscal 2020 (ends in March 2020) EPS consensus.
Ma helped found Alibaba in 1999, and was instrumental in making the company's name synonymous with a Chinese e-commerce market that now accounts for about a fifth of the country's retail sales (that's about twice the U.S. level). Along the way, he helped found payments giant Alipay (Alibaba maintains a 33% stake), and saw his company expand into everything from international e-commerce to online video to cloud infrastructure, food delivery and digital mapping services.
This column has been updated to mention Alibaba's Russian joint venture, which was announced on Sep. 11th.
However, the company's Chinese commerce operations still account for over two-thirds of its revenue, and the lion's share of its profits stem from its massive Taobao and Tmall marketplaces. And Zhang seems quite capable of guiding this part of Alibaba's empire.
From 2007 to 2013, when he began a two-year stint as COO, Zhang held executive roles at Taobao and Tmall. He played a key role in launching Alibaba's first Singles Day shopping event -- it's now a massive online retail festival embraced by both Alibaba and its rivals -- and in recent years has helped spearhead "new retail" initiatives such as the launch of Alibaba's innovative Hema supermarkets and (in August) a coffee delivery partnership with Starbucks (SBUX) .
And with regards to Alibaba on the whole, the corporate culture that Ma helped instill -- one that emphasizes group decision-making and bonding, and welcomes employee feedback and criticism -- is hardly one for which the wheels are likely to fall off as soon as Ma departs. The fact that Alibaba, much like U.S. tech giants, has been quite successful at recruiting elite talent in its home country should also help keep it sound footing.
Ma touched on some of these cultural traits in a letter discussing his planned exit -- which, it should be noted, still won't be happening for another year -- and pointed out that his company's succession planning began 10 years ago. "We believed the only way to solve the problem of corporate leadership succession was to develop a system of governance based on a unique culture and mechanisms for developing consistent talent and successors," he said. "For the last 10 years, we kept working on these ingredients."
Still, it's hard to overlook the fact that Ma's fingerprints are all over Alibaba's meteoric rise, as well as the company's expansion into many non-e-commerce businesses. One also can't overlook the fact that rivals such as Tencent (TCEHY) and JD.com (JD) have hardly been slouches themselves when it comes to executing within their core businesses and expanding into adjacent fields.
In that context, the biggest risk surrounding Ma's departure isn't that Alibaba's businesses will suddenly start executing poorly in his absence, but that the company might miss the boat or fail to capitalize on an important trend or two farther down the line, while the likes of Tencent and JD.com don't. Much like how Microsoft (MSFT) failed to effectively deliver in the web search and mobile OS markets in the decade following Bill Gates's 2000 decision to step down as CEO.
It's hardly a given that Alibaba will make similar mistakes after Ma leaves the scene -- and for now, there are good reasons to be cautiously optimistic that it won't. However, it will naturally be a while before investors know with certainty whether the Daniel Zhang era at Alibaba will look more like the Steve Ballmer era at Microsoft, or the Tim Cook era at Apple (AAPL) .
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