Alibaba's leadership shuffle – meet the company’s new chairman

Alibaba's leadership is going through a major shakeup.

Alibaba's leadership shuffle – meet the company’s new chairman
The logo of Alibaba Group is seen at the company's headquarters in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China July 20, 2018. Reuters/Aly Song/File Photo

The backstory: Alibaba, China's e-commerce powerhouse, has a huge user base, with over 900 million active users every year on its platforms Taobao and Tmall. But Alibaba's influence doesn't stop at e-commerce. It's also a major player in China's cloud computing and digital payments scenes.

Now, Alibaba's leadership is going through a major shakeup. Daniel Zhang, the current chairman and CEO, is stepping down from his role. Joseph Tsai, one of the co-founders, is taking over as the chairman, while Eddie Wu, the head honcho of Taobao and Tmall Group, is stepping up as the new CEO. These changes will go into effect in September, but Zhang isn't going too far – he'll continue leading Alibaba's cloud unit as the chairman and CEO.

More recently: Now, let's rewind a bit. This isn't the first time Alibaba has had a major executive reshuffling. Back in 2019, co-founder Jack Ma stepped away from his role as executive chairman. He's been laying low since late 2020 after giving a speech where he criticized Chinese regulations. That speech raised some eyebrows and led to a crackdown on Alibaba and other large businesses in China.

But in March, Ma made a return to China, just a day before Alibaba announced its largest restructuring in 24 years. The company has divided into six separate units, each with its own CEO and board of directors, focusing on areas like cloud, e-commerce, logistics, media and entertainment. These units now have the flexibility to pursue independent listings or fundraising initiatives.

The development: Tsai is a long-time player in the Alibaba game and has been appointed as the company's chairman. What makes this appointment particularly noteworthy is Tsai's American connections, which are quite rare among Chinese business leaders. He’s been involved with Alibaba since its early days and has gone beyond the e-commerce giant, even owning the Brooklyn Nets basketball team and making waves in Manhattan's commercial real estate scene.

Tsai's journey at Alibaba began as the CFO and later led him to become the executive vice chairman. Besides his accomplishments within Alibaba, he’s also made a name for himself in the sports world, owning other teams like the New York Liberty and even investing in the world of esports with G2 Esports.

Tsai's appointment as chairman is seen as a signal of Alibaba's support for cryptocurrencies. He’s been a long-time advocate for digital assets and has made investments in various cryptocurrencies through his family office, Blue Pool Capital. It's worth noting that crypto activities are mostly illegal in China, but Hong Kong has started attracting crypto companies as US regulators and other countries have cracked down on the industry.

Key comments:

“The appointment of the internationally-focused Tsai as chairman aligns perfectly with the outward-looking strategy that Alibaba has recently adopted, with big investments in Lazada and the recently-announced plans to open a local version of Tmall in Europe,” said Jacob Cooke, CEO of WPIC, an e-commerce tech and marketing firm that helps foreign brands sell in China, to CNBC.

"The appointment of Daniel to focus on running cloud is really a show of confidence and trust in him to take the most precious business and run with it to develop it in the right way given this age of generative artificial intelligence (AI)," said Brian Wong, a former Alibaba employee and author of the book, "The Tao of Alibaba."

“This is the right time for me to make a transition, given the importance of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence Group as it progresses towards a full spin-off,” said Daniel Zhang, Alibaba CEO and chairman.