Corporate Leaders

Alibaba borrows bigger brand to crack US market

John Foley
Chance Chan | Reuters

Brands are everything to retailers, and Alibaba has found one that should do wonders for its marketability: Goldman Sachs. The Chinese e-commerce group has hired former investment banking stalwart Michael Evans to grow its overseas business. It's bad practice, since Evans had already been an independent director since Alibaba floated last year - but good politics.

Canadian rowing champ Evans, who took home a gold medal in 1984, may not be ideally equipped to run an online retail platform, but he knows about hard selling. Evans ran Goldman's Asia business for almost 10 years, starting in the year the Wall Street outfit opened its brokerage business in the People's Republic. In that capacity he helped pick up and schmooze clients like Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

Alibaba's new focus

The contacts acquired on the way to the near-top - Evans was once seen as a possible successor to Goldman chief Lloyd Blankfein - are likely to come in useful if U.S. politicians start quizzing Alibaba's presence in the American market. Amazon, Wal-Mart Stores and eBay are unlikely to sit quietly by if the company starts taking them on directly. If Ma decides to spend some of his $20 billion cash pile on acquisitions in the United States - eBay and Yahoo would both have logic - Evans may offer an acceptable face to lawmakers giving a deal the once-over.

Read MoreAlibaba names ex-Goldman exec to head global expansion

What's not encouraging is the message Evans' appointment sends about Alibaba's clubby insider culture. His prominent role at long-standing Alibaba adviser Goldman already made Evans less suited to holding Ma and his cohort to account. Turning him from an independent director into an executive reinforces the sense that the checks and balances on Alibaba's founders are weak.

Such trifles as corporate governance matter more now, with Alibaba shares 15 percent above their IPO price, than they did in November, when the shares were 76 percent above their debut. But investors probably care less about who does what and more about where and how quickly it gets done. On that score, Evans is worth more on the inside.