Magazine article Management Today

Books: China's Capitalist Conjurer

Magazine article Management Today

Books: China's Capitalist Conjurer

Article excerpt

The unlikely story of the Chinese entrepreneur behind billion-dollar ecommerce empire Alibaba highlights his crazy, magic touch, says Benita Matofska

Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built
Duncan Clark
Ecco, pounds 18.99

Ma describes his company as 'one thousand and one mistakes'. 'We didn't have any money, we didn't have any technology, we didn't have a plan.' Yet from paying your electricity bill to finding employment, everything in China has been built by Ma.

The success of the book is due to Clark's access to Ma, Alibaba and his knowledge of China. A former employee of Morgan Stanley and previous adviser to Alibaba, he lifts the lid on Ma's exploits. The core of 'Jack Magic' is the 'shrimp' - small business. 'American B2B sites are whales, but 85% of fish are shrimp sized.'

Ma's strategy focuses on the 'Iron Triangle' of ecommerce, logistics and finance. Through his platform Taobao, he offers a choice of goods from mosquitoes to bottled farts. Through logistics, he gets the goods where they need to be. Without low-cost delivery, Alibaba would not be what it is. Through financial subsidiary Alipay, payment is worry free - this e-wallet handles dollars 3-4tn per year, triple that of PayPal.

Clark transports the reader back to 1964, the year of Jack's birth when private enterprise in China was dead. Mao's homeland was an improbable place to spawn the man credited with bringing capitalism to China. The child of a factory worker and photographer, Ma was taunted by his classmates for his parents' love of Pingtan (folk performances) and was, as a result, at risk of persecution during Mao's Cultural Revolution.

But it was Nixon's visit to Ma's hometown of Hangzhou that led to his lifelong passion for the English language. In 1979, when foreign tourists arrived, Ma would ride his bicycle to the Hangzhou Hotel to greet them and learn English. In 1994, thanks to his linguistic acumen, Ma landed a government agency job to sort out a highway dispute with an American company. On arrival in the US, he discovered that the company didn't exist and was locked in a beach house for refusing a bribe, then taken to Vegas and kept in a hotel room above a casino. Trust 'Crazy Jack' to escape and win dollars 600 on slot machines. …

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