It was during a two-month trip to Africa last year that Jack Ma Yun realized it was time to step down as the captain of Alibaba, the powerful Chinese technology company he had founded in his apartment nearly two decades earlier.
While Ma was off meeting African heads of state and pushing his $10 million fund to encourage entrepreneurs on the continent, the world's largest e-commerce company was humming along just fine without him.
"For over 60 days, without coming back, I didn't get one phone call from the company," Ma recalled at an investor meeting last autumn. "I knew they were ready," Ma said.
Whether investors are ready or not, the former English teacher who built Alibaba Group Holding into a $453 billion tech powerhouse is set to yield the chairmanship of the company in September. And while the move has been well-telegraphed, there remain persistent concerns over the future of Alibaba without its charismatic founder at the helm.
Since Ma stepped down as Alibaba's CEO in 2013, he has gradually faded from Alibaba's day-to-day operations. This hasn't hindered the company's growth: Alibaba has become a multinational conglomerate that includes retail, financial services, media and cloud computing. The company has even expanded its presence beyond earth, putting a satellite and a mini space station in orbit in 2018. Over the last five years, revenue has grown at an average annual rate of 49%.
Much of that recent expansion has been overseen by Chief Executive Daniel Zhang Yong, a 12-year Alibaba veteran credited with launching Singles Day, the Chinese sales bonanza that has outstripped Thanksgiving as the world's biggest retail event.
Zhang, who is little known outside the company, will step into the chairman's seat when Ma departs in September. Hardworking and serious, Zhang will take the chairman's job at a tricky time for Alibaba: Its biggest market, China, is experiencing its worst economic slowdown in almost 30 years, shaking consumer confidence. Chinese leaders in Beijing are tightening their grip over private firms, particularly the country's tech companies. And Alibaba is seeking future growth in overseas markets at a time when Washington and Beijing are locked in a technology cold war that only appears to be intensifying. These issues have raised questions about how -- or whether -- Alibaba can maintain its record of blistering growth in the post-Ma era.
While the company touts its investments in future technologies like artificial intelligence, China's economic slowdown has exposed how reliant it is on its oldest business: e-commerce.