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When Alibaba co-founder Eddie Youngming Wu started out on his own eight years ago, he didn’t stray far from mentor Jack Ma.
For the investment fund he was setting up, he chose an office in the wetlands in central Hangzhou, a few ponds away from where Ma held court and practiced tai chi. Wu also stayed on as Ma’s special assistant and remains a member of the Alibaba Partnership, which serves as the group’s de facto board.
“Jack and Eddie have a close, trusting relationship,” said one former Alibaba executive.
Now nearly two decades after co-founding Alibaba with Ma and 16 others, the 48-year-old Wu is set to preside over the unraveling of the tech empire they built. In the fall, Wu will take over as CEO, while Group Vice President Zhou Tsai will take over as president.
Alibaba is betting that slimming down and returning to its e-commerce roots will help it regain market share that has succumbed to fledgling online platforms such as Pinduoduo and ByteDance’s Douyin. It’s branching out from other major business lines, from food delivery to supermarkets, with e-commerce platforms Taobao and Tmall set to remain the group’s wholly owned main businesses.
“Eddie and Teacher Ma are really equal,” said one of the old employees of Alibaba. “Eddie admires Teacher Ma, his ideas and philosophy and would be excellent at implementing his vision,” the person said.
Ma will remain without an official position at Alibaba, but plans to be more involved, according to people close to the group. On Tuesday, photos of Ma having a farewell coffee at Alibaba headquarters with outgoing CEO Daniel Zhang flooded the Chinese internet.
Ma faces the delicate task of engineering an Alibaba turnaround without setting off alarm bells in Beijing. Top Communist Party officials may worry that he is trying to revive the political clout that led to his downfall more than two years ago after giving a crusading speech in Shanghai.
said Duncan Clark, author of the book Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built. “Having an agent makes sense,” he said.
The former CEO of Alibaba said Ma had no interest in returning to run the day-to-day business. “Jack plays the architect. What he knows best is people and how to fit them in.” “Jack is trying to bring Alibaba back to his roots: the bigger he gets, the less culture gets.”
Wu joined Ma’s startup China Pages after graduating from university in 1996 as one of its early developers. “Ma told me about the work and his vision; I found it brilliant and inspiring,” Wu later said in an interview at Tsinghua University.
China Pages soon split up, and Ma moved some of the team north to Beijing to run a website for the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. “We chose the team members and Wu Yongming went with Jack,” He Yibing, co-founder of China Pages, recalled in an interview with the Financial Times.
He said, “Wu works hard.” “At one point we imported some computer workstations and servers and all the manuals were in English. His English skills weren’t very good, but he dug into those manuals, checking words in the dictionary so he could piece the machines together.”
After Ma left Beijing, Wu was one of 18 founders who shared his Hangzhou apartment in 1999 to create his next venture, Alibaba. “He was a talented young man who believed in Jack and Jack trusted him,” He said.
A few years later, Ma commissioned him to build Alimama, the advertising engine that would continue to mint the company’s e-commerce business. Several employees said his time there earned him the nickname Mama Wu internally.
“Part of the nickname came from creating Alimama, but that was also because Mama Wu was always looking after us, working on bug fixes or new structures,” said a former Alimama team member. “He always finds a way to solve it.”
“As a co-founder close to Ma, he can always provide us with the resources we need,” the person added.
Wu then created the Taobao shopping app, which quickly developed into an important part of Chinese consumers’ daily shopping habits. After Alibaba was listed in New York, he became a special assistant to Ma. People close to both men said he had been following Ma around for a while.
In 2015 Wu stepped back from Alibaba, heading its healthcare arm while launching Vision Plus Capital, the venture capital firm set up alongside Ma’s personal office in the wetlands. The group has supported several Alibaba employees who have ventured out on their own such as Qiang Hui of digital healthcare company Come-Future and Jerry Wang of Tuya. It now has more than $1 billion in assets under management, according to filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
Several Alibaba employees have suggested Wu’s investment expertise will be beneficial to the group as it transforms into a holding company, responsible for steering the profits collected by Taobao and Tamol.
Wu’s first task will be to reverse the platform’s decline. Ma is pushing the group to refocus on small and medium Taobao sellers rather than the big brands that dominate Tmall. Last month, he told employees that Alimama, the advertising platform Wu built, was key to the group’s future, according to two people briefed on the meeting.
“The company kept changing strategy without achieving anything substantial,” said one Alibaba manager. “The main issues lie in management. Since Jack Ma there hasn’t been any really great leader,” the person said.
Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing
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