Alibaba at 18: Focus Can’t Be Just on Bottom Line

A mature company has responsibilities that extend beyond its bottom line, Jack Ma said Friday.

Addressing nearly 40,000 Alibaba employees gathered for the technology group’s 18th anniversary, the executive chairman said he and his fellow founders had sought only to be “a respectable Chinese enterprise” when they started operations in 1999. Since then, Alibaba has grown to the world’s sixth-largest company in terms of market capitalization, and the world around it has also changed, Ma said.

Jack Ma performs for 38,000 staff at Yellow Dragon Stadium in Hangzhou at Alibaba’s 18th anniversary celebration.

“You must consider the times, the global society these days. If you think about the world, the responsibility is to our own family, our nation, our society and the world. Only then can we be respected by the world,” Ma told the crowd in Hangzhou’s Huang Long Stadium. “Businesses must drive the progress of society.”

Ma’s speech capped the five-hour gathering and, like an earlier one from Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang, was self-reflective and focused on what the executives deemed a pivotal anniversary for the group.

“Eighteen years is a very important age,” Zhang told employees. “You’re a grown-up now, at the age of 18. What does this mean? It means you need to take on responsibility as a grown-up. We need to contribute more to the growth of society and the nation.”

“Alibaba has become an economy in itself,” CEO Daniel Zhang told employees on Friday night.

Ma emphasized that Alibaba, now about the same size as the world’s 21st-largest economy, intends to pursue growth and his ambition of being equal in size to the world’s fifth-largest economy within the next two decades. But more than merely chasing dollars and cents, Alibaba will use its technological capabilities and the skills of its 54,000-plus employees to help overcome challenges that arise in the future.

“Eighteen years ago, we saw opportunities. Now, we see challenges,” Ma said. “Religion, politics, disruption, diseases and inequality. Technology changes are going to lead many people to lose their jobs…We are technologically capable and have a very good support from a technological base. We must think about issues facing China and our world and what we should do.”

It starts with me: Alibaba employees leave the company’s 18th anniversary celebration, taking all of their trash with them. A key message from Executive Chairman Jack Ma was that staff take on greater responsibility for the world they live in.

Ma said the trick for Alibaba, as a large and more-mature company, is to never stray far from what made it successful.

“What has enabled us to do so well for 18 years is we are idealists, and idealism has driven us to today,” Ma said. “If we lose our idealism, our ambitions, we become dull…We can lose everything else, but we can’t lose idealism.”

Likewise, he said Alibaba’s mission — to make it easier to do business anywhere– needs to stay in the center of the group’s crosshairs, even as it invests and innovates in new business areas. Customers, partners and employees are the crux of Alibaba’s success.

“We always hold customers first. Without customers, there is no Alibaba,” Ma said. “We have to live up to their trust. Only then, can we go further.”

Ma thanked employees for their personal sacrifices to make the company successful. But as Alibaba enters a new phase, he warned against complacency.

“We hope all employees remember today that we are a big company, we have economies of scale, but compared to the future, we are still a child,” Ma said. “Don’t be complacent … There is room for improvement in every area.”