Alibaba's Jack Ma to Step Down as CEO, Remains Chairman

English teacher-turned-entrepreneur Jack Ma, who built Alibaba Group into an e-commerce empire to rival Amazon and eBay, says he plans to step down from his post as chief executive of the Chinese Internet giant this spring while remaining full-time executive chairman.

In an e-mail to employees sent today, Ma, 48, wrote that although he would be giving up CEO responsibilities for the company he founded in 1999, he would as executive chairman focus his attention on setting strategic direction, helping to develop managerial talent within the company's ranks, and strengthening Alibaba's social-responsibility efforts.

"As a founder CEO," Ma wrote in the e-mail, "stepping down as CEO is a difficult decision, for this could be confounding especially for someone of my age who should be at the height of his career."

But "at 48 I am no longer 'young' for the Internet business," Ma wrote, explaining that he wanted to make room for "the next generation of Alibaba people (who) are better equipped to manage and lead an Internet ecosystem like ours.

"I believe that doing what makes oneself happy, staying within one's own limits and being a good partner to one's more capable colleagues, is the right thing for me to do," Ma wrote.

Ma will remain as CEO until May 10, when a successor is expected to be named. (May 10 is the 10th anniversary of Alibaba's Taobao online shopping platform, which dominates e-commerce in China and has been the company's main growth driver over the last several years.)

Ma's decision to relinquish day-to-day management responsibilities is bound to send a ripple of shock through the e-commerce industry. Alibaba’s impish founder—in the e-mail announcing his decision, Ma referred to himself as "E.T.-like"—helped jumpstart the Internet in China and is one of country's most admired entrepreneurs.

Under Ma’s stewardship, Alibaba Group over the past 14 years has grown into the world’s largest private tech company with 24,000 employees and an estimated valuation of $40 billion. Ma has often been picked by the international media as one of the world’s most effective and influential business leaders, ranking among luminaries such as Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett.

Still, Ma's move is not a complete surprise. In a speech delivered in September during AliFest, Alibaba’s annual summit for e-commerce entrepreneurs, Ma joked about getting older, complaining that "when people in the company are discussing the business, sometimes I feel like my brain cannot catch up." And in his e-mail to employees, Ma wrote that he realized years ago he wasn’t suited to be a traditional CEO of a big company. He began the e-mail announcing his decision to step down as CEO by stating that he had "looked forward to writing this letter for a long time, and this moment has finally arrived."

Ma has served as both Executive Chairman and CEO at a time when Alibaba has been growing with extraordinary speed and the e-commerce business has become increasingly competitive and complex. The announcement comes just days after Alibaba Group was reorganized into 25 business units overseen by two committees, one for strategy and one for operations. The structure appears to lessen the usual importance of the CEO in the day-to-day running of the company.

Although Ma did not name a successor, he strongly hinted in his e-mail that a new CEO would come from within Alibaba. "Don't worry, we are confident that we will be able to announce a new CEO on May 10," Ma wrote.