Power Players

Alibaba's Jack Ma spent 10 years preparing for his retirement

Founder and former chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma attends the 'Ma Yun Rural Teachers Prize' awards show on January 21, 2018 in Sanya, Hainan province, China.
Wang HE | Getty Images

When Alibaba's founder Jack Ma retired from the company last month, it was not a decision he took lightly.

The 55-year-old announced in September 2018 that he would step down as executive chairman in 12 months' time, bringing an end to his 20 years at the helm of the tech giant. But, he recently revealed, it was a plan he'd had in mind for more than a decade.

Speaking at the Forbes Global CEO Conference on Tuesday, Ma said he was first awoken to the idea of retiring in 2004, when a venture capitalist told him he wasn't "qualified as CEO." But it was in 2009, when the company hit its 10 year anniversary, that his succession planning began in earnest.

"That day I started to think I should prepare for my retirement," Ma told audiences in Singapore.

"That day I decided my 20 year anniversary, the year 2019, September 10, will be the day I'll leave," he said.

You should never have a copy of Jack Ma. One Jack Ma is too much for the company.
Jack Ma
founder of Alibaba

Ma has often said he would like the company he founded in 1999 to endure for 102 years, so as to span three centuries. To help realize that vision, Ma said he and his team developed a robust leadership system, which values new ways of thinking and working.

"You should never have a copy of Jack Ma. One Jack Ma is too much for the company," said Ma. "So in the past 10 years, we tried to build up a system: A system that has the right leadership ... a system that can create, can make, and can discover, can train a lot of leaders."

That included studying the United States' Declaration of Independence, the British parliament system and Roman politics to come up with a true meritocracy, he said.

It's the culture, it's the people, it's the system that keeps a company alive for 102 years. It's not only one person.
Jack Ma
founder of Alibaba

"We spent like a year discussing, debating the system … where the leaders can fight for the vision, mission and value of the company," he continued.

Ma, who was succeeded as executive chairman by Alibaba Group's CEO Daniel Zhang, said he now felt "confident" that the company had a strong leadership strategy in place that could endure for decades to come.

"The company should never depend on Jack Ma," he said. "Jack Ma will get old. Jack Ma will get stupid. Jack Ma will get sick or car accident or whatever."

"The company should depend on a system for leadership. It's the culture. It's the people. It's the system that keeps a company alive for 102 years. It's not only one person."

Don't miss: Why Jack Ma says he'd never get a job at Alibaba today

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