(Bloomberg) -- Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. ushered through a parade of high-profile stewards over its 24-year history, from the larger-than-life Jack Ma himself to a succession of C-suite executives who frequent conference and diplomatic circles. But the man who rose to the top in last week’s abrupt management reshuffle is an enigma even to some of the Chinese e-commerce juggernaut’s longer-serving employees.
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The appointment of Eddie Wu Yongming to replace the affable Daniel Zhang surprised insiders, even though the 48-year-old computer scientist has been with Ma from Alibaba’s humblest beginnings. Employees said they resorted to company intranet and public records to find out more about their bespectacled, serene-looking new boss.
Now the elevation of a technologist-turned-angel investor raises a plethora of questions about the direction for China’s largest e-commerce company.
Wu appears to straddle two disparate worlds, as a veteran coder who today leads a 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion) VC firm with a portfolio encompassing such bleeding-edge fields as autonomous driving and Internet of Things. That’s important because Alibaba’s internet supremacy has come under fire in recent years in arenas as varied as AI, cloud services and video entertainment. And its six arms are now in fund-raising and spinoff mode — classic deal-maker territory.
Investors last week struggled to parse the impact Wu could make on the $220 billion company and that six-way restructuring. Many analysts pointed out his scientific credentials, while others focused on his ability to draw in much-needed capital. Both could be key to energizing a company that hasn’t grown by double-digits since late 2021, after Beijing’s crackdown kneecapped its key businesses.
Scant clues exist on the internet as to his thinking: scattered interviews he’s given over the decades typically contain mostly anodyne comments about tech advances. But his personality occasionally shines through.
Among the few online photos of Wu was one of him in an FC Barcelona jersey, giving two thumbs-ups in the midst of a packed Camp Nou stadium. In an accompanying 2016 interview with Tsinghua University, he said he took his daughter to a Lionel Messi home game to instill in her the value of persistence and focus.
“If you start a business only to make money, after you’ve made some money, you get lost pretty fast,” he was quoted as saying.
Affectionately nicknamed “Wu Ma” — or “Mother Wu” — for his ability to counsel and rally people, Wu was impressed by the then young and idealistic Ma, who envisioned digitalizing China’s fast-growing private sector by building web pages for small business owners. In 1996, Wu joined Ma’s very first venture, China Yellow Pages, after stumbling across a job listing on a local newspaper, the computer-science major said in the Tsinghua University interview.
“This guy is humorous, very charismatic in the way he speaks,” Wu said of his first impressions of his future boss.
Wu stuck with his mentor despite a string of now-infamous rejections by bureaucrats — a loyalty that may now be coming full circle. He followed his mentor to Beijing when Ma did a stint at the commerce ministry, and then tagged along when Ma left to create Alibaba at his lakeside apartment in Hangzhou — before Ma’s right-hand man Joseph Tsai (now appointed chairman) had even met the entrepreneur.
“Eddie Wu is a well-regarded insider with proven deal skills, which is probably what Baba needs at this point,” said Brock Silvers, Chief Investment Officer of private equity firm Kaiyuan Capital. “Wu should be able to step into his new role without any tumult, but he’s also a more reserved sort of exec compared to the legendary Ma.”
As Alibaba grew, so too did Wu’s role at the e-commerce behemoth. He’s the chief architect of Alibaba’s flagship products — ranging from the Ebay-style Taobao marketplace to its namesake wholesale site. In 2004, he designed Alipay — the online payments service modeled on PayPal that went on to help wean China off cash. The technology grew so valuable that Ma in 2011 spun it off to create the underpinnings of Ant Group Co. — a move that shareholders Yahoo and SoftBank protested vehemently at the time as the loss of a key asset.
Later, Wu spearheaded the creation of Taobao’s ad platform, Alimama, which let merchants buy prominent placement and rapidly became Alibaba’s cash cow in the early years. After Alibaba debuted in New York in 2014 in what was then the world’s biggest initial public offering, he served as Ma’s special assistant for four years, until the tech mogul conferred the chairmanship on Zhang.
Till today, Wu bears the honorific of Employee No. 4 — ahead of such luminaries as Chinese e-commerce czar Trudy Dai (11), according to employees. Many staffers adopt an internal alias inspired by characters from Louis Cha’s kung-fu classics — an obsession of Ma’s. Wu’s happens to be “Dongxie.” The character, which translates into “Eastern Heretic,” is one of the world’s five greatest martial artists, known for a love of music.
Apart from tech expertise, “he also has a strong business acumen,” Brian Wong, a former Alibaba executive who worked with Wu, told Bloomberg Television. “He’s seen virtually every angle of the business.”
Others acknowledged a move out of left field.
“We are surprised by the appointment of Mr. Wu as the new CEO of the group given his technology rather than operational background,“ Citigroup analysts including Alicia Yap wrote in a note, before echoing Wong’s sentiments.
In 2015, Wu founded his own venture capital outfit, Vision Plus, after stepping away from Alibaba’s day-to-day management. Wu’s investment firm taps into what it calls the “unicorn forest” of Hangzhou, swooping early on a slew of startups founded by fellow Alibaba alumni. Those include Xiaodian, a power-bank rental firm started by Taobao’s former head of lifestyle services, and augmented-reality glasses maker Rokid, created by an Alibaba engineer.
In 2020, before China kicked off its crackdown on the country’s once-freewheeling tech sector, Wu was on the verge of finally hitting pay-dirt. He was one of more than a dozen early employees whose shares would make them billionaires upon Ant’s debut — in Wu’s case, $1.8 billion. Then disaster struck — his boss Ma in October took the stage at the Bund Forum in Shanghai and, in a now-infamous speech, blasted state banks for operating like pawn shops and regulators for behaving like old men. Market regulators killed the IPO a month later.
Like many Ant honchos, Wu then largely stepped away from the limelight. In March 2021, he popped up during the listing ceremony of Vision Plus portfolio firm Tuya Inc., which raised $900 million in a rare debut for a Chinese tech firm during regulatory and economic turmoil. Wu was one of the strongest proponents for the Internet of Things device maker — founded, incidentally, by Alibaba alumni — and was pictured front-and-center in his trademark black-framed glasses at the virtual event.
In hindsight, Wu’s rise to Alibaba’s top wasn’t without clues. In March, when Zhang unfurled the restructuring and spinoffs, Wu was appointed chairman of the core Taobao-Tmall marketplaces, and a director of Alibaba’s international commerce and local services divisions. Together with Tsai, who’s now Alibaba’s new chairman, Wu will follow through on a company overhaul that could prove crucial to its long-term growth.
“If they don’t catch the new trend where user traffic is coming from, the company will go downhill,” warned Roger Huang, a former Alibaba exec who helped launch Tmall in 2008.
--With assistance from Venus Feng and Alice Truong.
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