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Who is Daniel Zhang? Meet the man who will now lead Alibaba

Sep 10, 2018 by A. Alfaro
Who is Daniel Zhang? Meet the man who will now lead Alibaba

Jack Ma, the charismatic chairman of Alibaba group announced on Monday that he would step aside as the company’s chief from next year. Simultaneously, he also announced that current CEO Daniel Zhang (张勇) would succeed him.

After the one-year transition period, Zhang will become the chairman of one the most important companies in China. Jack Ma praised him as the “best CEO in China.”

For Zhang himself, it has been a long but eventful journey to the top during which he has played key roles in making the company stand where it does today.

Born in 1972, Daniel Zhang graduated from Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. He worked as a senior manager in the auditing and corporate consulting department in PricewaterhouseCoopers China. Before joining Alibaba in 2007, he acted as chief financial officer at Shanda Interactive Entertainment (盛大互动娱乐), an online video game company listed on NASDAQ. He began his stint with Alibaba as the chief financial officer of its e-commerce wing, Taobao. Soon after, he doubled up as Taobao’s CEO.

Thanks to a rapid growth, Taobao quickly became one of Alibaba’s most valuable assets. Taobao established its own subsidiary e-commerce platform, Tmall, in 2011 and Daniel Zhang became its chairman. He was one of the minds behind Alibaba’s annual sales event called Double 11. Held on November 11 every year, it is the world’s largest shopping event and one of Alibaba’s signature creations. During the Double 11 of 2017, Alibaba sold USD 25.3 billion worth of merchandise, according to the company’s data.

In September 2013, Daniel Zhang was appointed Alibaba’s chief operating officer after which he began to oversee Alibaba’s overseas operations as well. In this capacity, he also supervised important strategic operations, such as the establishment of Cainiao logistics network, an ambitious project that operates warehouses and express delivery stations, hoping to bring 24-hour delivery to China and 72-hour delivery to the rest of the world. Zhang also monitored Alibaba’s USD 361 million investment in Haier Electronics Group (海尔集团).

In May 2015, he became Alibaba’s CEO. According to Bloomberg News, sources from within the industry declared that he has not only led an upgrade of the whole company, he has also carried out major upgrades to the organizational system. “All these goals have been implemented smoothly, a hard job considering the challenges in such a big company,” the same sources said. He has been a key actor during Alibaba’s acquisition of food-delivery company Elema, investment in Suning, Intime Retail Group (Yintai 银泰) and the signing of a strategic partnership agreement with Starbucks. Last year, Alibaba launched its new concept of supermarkets, Hema, which is leading the O2O revolution in China.

Jack Ma seems to have complete faith in Daniel’s abilities. In the public announcement on September 10th , Jack praised Daniel’s “firm and calm leadership” and reminded that under Daniel’s leadership, “Alibaba has achieved healthy and sustained growth for 13 consecutive quarters,” Ma observed.

Jack Ma is not the only one to have faith in Zhang. Sources from within the company quoted by Sina News said: “Daniel is able to transform a tractor into a Boeing 747”. Under his leadership, Alibaba has mutated into something bigger than an e-commerce company. Alibaba is now a company driven by big data that features e-commerce, finance, logistics, cloud computing and entertainment, serving hundreds of millions of consumers and tens of millions of small and medium-sized enterprises. Alibaba now influences and shapes the very future of e-commerce.

On February 2018, during the presentation of Alibaba’s strategic partnership with Juran, a furniture company, Zhang declared: “In the digital economy era, no business is difficult”. During an event in Hangzhou in June 2018, Zhang had laid out his targets for Alibaba. By the year 2020, he expects Alibaba’s GMV to reach USD 1 trillion. In the longer term, Alibaba is expected to reach 2 billion customers around the world and serve 10 million profitable small businesses, having created 100 million jobs by 2036.

To realise his dreams though, Zhang has to defeat quite a few challenges. E-commerce has been steadily sinking in China for a few years now. After a 49.7% growth in 2014, e-commerce sales volume declined to 33.3% in 2015 and fell further to 26.2% in 2016, according to the Chinese government and Founder Securities data. Although Alibaba has reacted quickly by launching Hema and the “new retail” concept, Zhang will have to face a rapidly-changing environment. In an interview with the China Entrepreneur Magazine, he declared: “This environment forces us to sleep with our eyes open. We must constantly study and innovate. I enjoy this.”

New players in the game are also reshaping the business. The incredible rise of Pinduoduo (a Wechat miniprogram) in 2018 has proven how fast e-commerce can change. However, Zhang does not feel threatened. “New players come out every in the industry. So far, Pinduoduo’s nature is not a social e-commerce business. Its social aspect is only superficial,” he told during an interview.

Zhang also refused to budge before Pìnduoduo’s strategy of pushing down, a step that has made it popular in third and fourth tier cities. But Zhang is firm on his faith on with quality. “Regardless of price, a certain quality must be guaranteed,” he believes.

Despite being in the thick of a very competitive business environment, Daniel Zhang does not like the word “enemy”: “We never see our competitors as enemies and we do not seek to destroy others as a hobby,” he recently said.

Daniel Zhang is as full of confidence in Alibaba as he is in himself. “We have a very good team, full of people with an Internet DNA and a commercial background. In Alibaba there are people who understand logistics, product and supply chains”, he declared during the interview with China Entrepreneur. He said when facing a task, he thinks: “If I cannot do this, then no one else in the world can.”

In a year, all eyes will be on him, watching how he faces what could be the hardest and most challenging task of his life.

A. Alfaro

A. Alfaro is a Beijing-based freelance reporter. He focuses on China's politics, culture and society. He can be reached at varofaro@gmail.com. 

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