How Is an IPO Like a Marriage? The Billionaire Founder of China’s Alibaba Goes Public. “I’m like a bride on her wedding day. All she knows how to do is grin.”

May 10, 2013, 8:38 p.m. ET

Weekend Confidential: Jack Ma of Alibaba

How Is an IPO Like a Marriage? The Billionaire Founder of China’s Alibaba Goes Public.

By ALEXANDRA WOLFE

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‘I want to get back to normal,’ he insists. ‘I think if you asked Bill Gates, he wants to be back to himself.’

A week before he was set to step down as chief executive of Alibaba, one of the world’s largest e-commerce companies, Jack Ma was enjoying breakfast on an outdoor patio in Santa Monica, Calif. Worth an estimated $4.2 billion, the Chinese entrepreneur may grow even richer if the company he founded 14 years ago goes public. Philanthropy has brought him to California on this trip, but he has no intention of joining the famous billionaires’ pledge and donating at least half his money to charity. “This idea of giving your money out was not created by Gates and Buffett. It was created by the Communist Party in the 1950s!” he says with a laugh.

That wasn’t the only thing that had Mr. Ma, 48, chuckling. Since he announced his transition to executive chairman in January—he handed over the reins Friday—he has stoked speculation about a potential Alibaba IPO. With an estimated value of about $60 billion, the company could be one of the year’s hottest tech offerings if it makes the move.Mr. Ma has been on this road before. One of the group’s 25 business units, Alibaba.com, an e-commerce platform for small businesses, went public on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2007, before Mr. Ma took it private again last year. (The rest of the group’s units, including Taobao, Tmall and Alipay, have never gone public.) The financial crisis hurt Alibaba.com, he says, and it needed major changes. Taking it private again laid the groundwork to take the whole group public one day.

Between bites of scrambled eggs and potatoes, Mr. Ma compared the possible IPO to a wedding. “We are a company who has married and divorced, and we know what marriage means,” he says. “We do not want a wedding reception—we want a happy marriage.” And the timing? “I think we are ready,” he says.

At the end of April, Alibaba bought an 18% stake in Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, for $586 million—another move seen as wedding preparation.

Mr. Ma’s successor, Jonathan Lu, moved up from his role as chief data officer after Mr. Ma put him through a series of positions—and what sounds like a corporate version of hazing. Mr. Ma says with a smirk, “I pushed him in the fridge” (that is, he gave Mr. Lu a hard time). “I realized early this year he was ready.”

Mr. Ma is a big believer in perseverance. Born in Hangzhou, China, he perfected his English skills by talking up tourists at a local hotel. He failed his college entrance exam twice before enrolling in a local teachers college. After trying with no success to land a number of jobs, including one as a secretary to the manager of a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, he borrowed $2,000 to start a website called China Pages and then ran an information technology company for a department of China’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation. In 1999, he raised $60,000 from 18 friends and, from his own apartment, started what is now Alibaba.

Today, Mr. Ma’s speeches draw large crowds at the company’s annual gathering for customers and media (celebrity speakers have included Bill Clinton and Kobe Bryant). He is married, with two children, including a son who attends college in the U.S.

Mr. Ma also has experience with less successful unions. Last fall, Alibaba bought back half of the 40% stake that Yahoo had owned in the company. When asked why, Mr. Ma responds, “They [Yahoo] changed the CEO how many times?” He leans forward and sways his head from left to right, as if to watch a rapid succession of CEOs. “It’s like a Hollywood movie!” he says. “It’s like a teen series!”

Mr. Ma admires the work ethic of Yahoo’s latest CEO, Marissa Mayer, but the one he holds in highest esteem is its founder Jerry Yang, who first invested $1 billion in Alibaba in 2005. “I almost walked away from the deal, but he convinced me in a small Japanese restaurant in San Francisco with a glass of sake,” he says.

On his trip to California last week, Mr. Ma traveled to Stanford University in search of talent. Speaking in Mandarin at an Alibaba recruiting event, he asked a few hundred handpicked engineers, “Why don’t you take a risk? Why don’t you think about going to China?” Judging by the overflowing room, some already are.

Though Mr. Ma has high hopes for China, he sees Silicon Valley as the center of global innovation. He will soon launch a U.S.-based fund to invest in Silicon Valley startups.

Mr. Ma says his first order of post-CEO business will be “to sleep for three months.” He may not have that much time. He will still direct strategic and leadership development of the company, which includes helping U.S. businesses use Alibaba’s platforms to sell to customers in China and abroad. On the side, he plans to open a tai chi club with the actor Jet Li, build an entrepreneurship university in Hangzhou and continue to work on several social and environmental initiatives, including one with the Nature Conservancy.

Still, Mr. Ma says, he hopes to escape the public eye. “I want to get back to normal,” he insists. “I think if you asked Bill Gates, he wants to be back to himself.” But, he adds, laughing, it may not be easy: “I have a unique and ugly face so people always recognize me.”

He chose May 10 as his last day as CEO for a reason. It was AliDay, a company holiday during which Alibaba opens its doors for public tours and employees who can’t afford their own weddings (or just want to have a second ceremony) get married en masse by Mr. Ma. For this AliDay, he blessed more than 750 of his employees’ weddings. “I’m like a bride on her wedding day,” he said in his closing speech. “All she knows how to do is grin.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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