Jack Ma urges Alibaba to ‘correct course’ in internal memo

(Bloomberg) — Jack Ma urged Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. to correct course in a surprise internal memo, in which the billionaire called for fundamental change across the company he co-founded decades ago.

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Ma, who has mostly stayed away from day-to-day operations since 2020, stunned employees Wednesday by replying to a staff post on Alibaba’s internal forum. In his brief message, the entrepreneur praised decisions taken in recent years by rival PDD Holdings Inc. to wrest market share from China’s e-commerce leader. But Ma was convinced Alibaba will change and “correct its course,” he said in a post confirmed by people familiar with the forum.

Jack Ma

Jack Ma

Alibaba, once China’s best candidate to become a trillion-dollar company, is trading near its lowest value this year, at a fraction of its peak in 2020. The company is navigating turmoil both internally and externally, as a weaker-than-anticipated economic recovery and up-and-coming rivals such as PDD and ByteDance Ltd. undermine its once-dominant online retail business.

“Every great company is born in a winter,” the billionaire wrote. “As the AI era for e-commerce gets underway, it’s an opportunity for everyone as well as a challenge.”

The company this year has undergone a series of upheavals, starting with the announcement of a plan to break up the corporation into six smaller pieces. Then-Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang stepped down and the company brought in two longstanding Ma confidantes, Joseph Tsai and Eddie Wu, to run the group. Months later, the pair announced they were shelving the much-anticipated spinoff and listing of its $11 billion cloud arm, a stunning about-face that called into question the company’s future direction. An Alibaba representative didn’t respond to a call and message seeking comment.

“Ma’s online response certainly adds to the perception of uproar at Alibaba,” said Brock Silvers, chief investment officer at private equity firm Kaiyuan Capital. “The breakup strategy is faltering, Ma is reducing his stake, and his latest message, meant to provide encouragement, comes across instead as somewhat deflating.”

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 once-outspoken billionaire is becoming more publicly active after years of staying out of the spotlight, following Beijing’s sweeping crackdown on his businesses. He just set up a new company to process and sell farming products, Hangzhou Ma’s Kitchen Food.

Alibaba’s shares slightly narrowed losses in Hong Kong after Ma’s encouraging comments. They came hours after PDD reported another outstanding set of results. The company founded by billionaire Colin Huang surged 18% after reporting a stronger-than-anticipated doubling in revenue, driven by the success of hit US shopping app Temu as well as making new inroads at home.

PDD’s growth far outpaced Chinese rivals including Alibaba, underscoring how it’s used promotions to woo bargain-seeking consumers at a time of economic uncertainty. During the just-concluded Singles’ Day shopping festival, PDD likely racked up 20% growth in transactions versus its rivals’ single-digit rises, Goldman Sachs estimated.

PDD’s market value at $176 billion is now within striking distance of Alibaba’s $190 billion, a once-unthinkable shift in fortunes. Part of that meteoric ascent stems from Temu, which in just over a year has overtaken Shein in sales and is now regarded as one of the more disruptive forces in global e-commerce. The site — which follows the same strategy of cut-rate pricing employed by arch-foe Shein as well as PDD’s own domestic app Pinduoduo — has expanded operations into scores of countries.

In contrast, Alibaba first explored overseas markets with AliExpress, the sourcing platform and then later international subsidiaries such as Lazada and Trendyol. But the Chinese business remains by far its biggest revenue contributor despite years of effort.

“Congratulations to Pinduoduo for their decision-making, execution and efforts of the past years,” Ma wrote. Every company has had their glory days, but “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.”

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