That's how it seemed to Zhang, who offered insight into his bond with Ma in an exclusive CNBC interview that aired Friday. That relationship is in focus as the CEO is preparing to succeed Ma as the chairman of the Chinese e-commerce giant.
In his first TV interview since the succession move was announced, Zhang revealed how he met up with Ma to come up with new ideas for the firm and times when he clashed with the outgoing chair.
Both leaders met regularly for tea but discussed business as well as "experiences."
"He just shares what you think, and it's something relevant to business, something not relevant, about people, about your experience. So it's more like brothers and you haven't seen each other for some time and you catch up for coffee," Zhang told CNBC.
He described his leadership style as "complementary" to Ma's and described how the two worked together on new ideas for the business. And if Ma repeated his idea three times to Zhang on separate occasions, it was a very serious suggestion.