(Bloomberg) -- China’s most famous entrepreneur broke years of silence about Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. with a call to arms for employees, following years of brutal government punishment and strategic missteps that cost the e-commerce pioneer its place as leader of the country’s tech industry.
Jack Ma, the once-outspoken billionaire who stayed out of public view after clashing with Beijing, took to an internal message board to urge Alibaba to “correct its course” and lauded rival PDD Holdings Inc., which has been swiping market share. He expressed confidence the 220,000-plus staff can return to their success of the past with determination and hard work.
“Every great company is born in a winter,” Ma wrote in response to a staff post. “The people willing to reform for the future, and the organizations willing to pay any price and sacrifice, are the ones that are truly respected.”
Once the most valuable company in China, Alibaba has fallen far behind games and social media leader Tencent Holdings Ltd. It’s also set to lose its position as China’s most valuable e-commerce operator to eight-year-old upstart PDD, which has far outstripped Alibaba’s growth with the help of hit shopping app Temu. On Thursday, Alibaba slid as much as 1.4% in Hong Kong, putting its market value at about $187 billion, just below PDD’s and a fraction of its peak of more than $850 billion three years ago.
It’s not clear whether Ma has been given explicit approval from authorities to resume a more public role — or whether he simply couldn’t stay silent any longer about the company’s strategy given its many problems. Ma ceded his role as chief executive officer before Alibaba’s initial public offering in 2014, leaving day-to-day management largely to his lieutenants since then.
“This intervention is particularly significant given that we haven’t heard him address anything related to the company for over three years,” said Duncan Clark, author of Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built and chairman of investment consulting firm BDA China. “He has always been seen as the ultimate voice, moral authority within the company, including speaking the truth that others dare not.”
The troubles for Ma and Alibaba began three years ago when the entrepreneur publicly criticized Chinese regulators for their oversight of dynamic sectors like finance and tech. Beijing quickly forced Ma to pull the plug on the initial public offering of Ant Group Co., an Alibaba affiliate that he had also co-founded. Ma then largely disappeared from public view for years, though he was spotted occasionally in locales from a Melbourne hotel to Tokyo members’ clubs.
Ma’s years-long absence underscored the mistrust that entrepreneurs and investors harbored against Beijing — an apprehension that persists despite a litany of official pledges to support the private sector as the world’s No. 2 economy struggles to recover from Covid Zero.
Beijing targeted Alibaba as part of a broad crackdown on the most powerful companies in the technology industry, pushing them to reform their practices and refrain from leveraging their platforms to dominate emerging businesses. That left Alibaba distracted and struggling to respond to competitive threats from the likes of PDD and ByteDance Ltd., the parent of TikTok and Douyin.
This March, CEO Daniel Zhang unveiled plans to split Alibaba into six different business units, arguing that would give each division’s management more autonomy and revitalize their operations. Zhang then stepped down and the company handed control over to two longstanding Ma confidantes, Joe Tsai and Eddie Wu. The pair soon announced they were shelving the most-anticipated spinoff — that of the $11 billion cloud-computing arm — in a stunning reversal that sent the company’s stock reeling yet again.
“The reorganization was a huge move, but the second half of that is, show me who’s running what,” said Jeffrey Towson, a partner at TechMoat Consulting. “Where are the most innovative e-commerce moves coming from? ByteDance and PDD. Who has the next-generation leadership in place? ByteDance and PDD.”
It’s unclear where Ma saw the most pressing need for change, but his unusual memo suggests the co-founder felt the need to address the troops. Ma this month hit the brakes on a plan to reduce his stake in Alibaba, as the stock price was not at a level he was happy with.
The comments to the company’s staff are the latest sign that the teacher-turned-entrepreneur is becoming more active after years of staying out of the spotlight, following Beijing’s sweeping crackdown on his businesses. In March, Ma visited a school in Hangzhou in a carefully arranged visit regarded as a sign he was ready to emerge onto a more public stage. He’s mostly focused on projects in agriculture and education, among his passions. He just set up a new company to process and sell farm products, Hangzhou Ma’s Kitchen Food.
“Congratulations to Pinduoduo for their decision-making, execution and efforts of the past years,” Ma wrote in his post.
Ma’s comments came hours after PDD reported stellar financial results. The company, founded by billionaire Colin Huang, surged 18% after reporting a stronger-than-anticipated doubling in revenue, driven in part by the surging success of Temu. Alibaba, in contrast, has tried and failed for years to build a truly substantial business outside of China.
“People will naturally understand and gravitate more to services they can see and use. PDD has this advantage in the US. Alibaba does not,” said Sharon Gai, a former head of global key accounts for Alibaba and author of Ecommerce Reimagined.
“Temu’s singular focus on e-commerce, combined with its aggressive marketing strategy, has made it more accessible and understandable to a global audience, particularly in the West.”
(Updates with PDD’s value surpassing Alibaba’s from the fourth paragraph)
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