Inside Alibaba, where co-founders are revered like rock stars, relatively few employees know about the soft-spoken executive who for years kept his same cramped office, unfashionable clothes and the self-effacing demeanor of a metalworker's son.
But for investors in Alibaba Group Holding's potentially record initial public offering, Simon Xie, a co-founder and vice president, represents one of the e-commerce company's most important figures: he's the only individual besides Executive Chairman Jack Ma who owns the domestic Chinese companies and holds the operating licenses that underpin Alibaba's corporate structure.
Alongside Ma, who holds the lion's share of those domestic firms, Xie wields full legal sway over the onshore entities and the critical contracts that link them with the New York-listed vehicle.
Yet much remains unknown about Xie, and the unusual shareholding arrangement has puzzled even high-level insiders. Some employees, said a former executive who worked closely with Xie, jokingly refer to the unassuming 45-year-old as shoufu - or "top millionaire" - even though he is not among the very top Alibaba shareholders.
In 15 years, Xie has given just one published interview, to his hometown newspaper. He helps run - but does not lead - Alibaba's investment division and was not named in a recently published list of 30 managers who form Alibaba's steering committee. But the low profile belies Xie's status as one of Ma's most trusted business partners, multiple former executives and outside analysts say.
"Simon Xie is clearly the most important person in Alibaba who is not part of the steering committee," said Fredrik Oqvist, the Beijing-based founder and CEO of China RAI, a consulting firm that advises hedge and mutual funds. "He pops up everywhere, yet he's elusive."
Alibaba declined to comment for this story, citing the quiet period ahead of its IPO.