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When Alibaba co-founder Eddie Yongming Wu struck out on his own eight years ago, he didn̵[ads1]7;t get far from mentor Jack Ma.
For the investment fund he set up, he chose an office in the central wetland area of Hangzhou, a few ponds away from where Ma held court and practiced tai chi. Wu also stayed on as Ma’s special assistant and remained a member of the Alibaba partnership, which acts as a de facto board of directors for the group.
“Jack and Eddie have a close, trusting relationship,” said a former Alibaba executive.
Now nearly two decades after founding Alibaba with Ma and 16 others, the 48-year-old Wu is set to preside over the collapse of the tech empire they built. Wu will take over as managing director in the autumn, while the group’s deputy chairman Joe Tsai will step up as chairman.
Alibaba is betting that slimming down and returning to its e-commerce roots will help it regain market share ceded to new online platforms such as Pinduoduo and ByteDance’s Douyin. It is spinning off other major business lines, from food delivery to supermarkets, with e-commerce platforms Taobao and Tmall remaining the group’s main wholly-owned businesses.
“Eddie and Teacher Ma are really symbiotic,” said a longtime Alibaba employee. “Eddie admires Teacher Ma, his ideas and philosophy and will be excellent in carrying out his vision,” the person said.
Ma will remain without an official position at Alibaba, but plans to become more deeply involved, according to people close to the group. On Tuesday, photos of Ma having a farewell coffee at Alibaba’s headquarters with outgoing CEO Daniel Zhang flooded the Chinese internet.
Ma faces the delicate task of engineering Alibaba’s turnaround without setting off alarm bells in Beijing. Top Communist Party officials may worry about his attempts to revive his political influence, which triggered his downfall more than two years ago after delivering a crusade speech in Shanghai.
“It may speak for Jack’s situation that he cannot make a full comeback, given the speech in 2020,” said Duncan Clark, author of Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built. “Having a proxy makes sense,” he said.
The former Alibaba executive said Ma was not interested in returning to run the business on a day-to-day basis. “Jack plays the role of an architect. What he knows best is people and how to match them, he said. “Jack is trying to bring Alibaba back to its roots: as it got bigger, the culture got diluted.”
Wu joined Ma’s startup China Pages after graduating from university in 1996 as one of the first developers. “Ma told me about the business and his vision; I found him witty and inspiring,” Wu later said in an interview at Tsinghua University.
Soon China Pages split and Ma took some of the team north to Beijing to run a website for China’s Ministry of Commerce. “We selected team members and Wu Yongming joined Jack,” He Yibing, co-founder of China Pages, recalled in an interview with the Financial Times.
“Wu is very hardworking,” he said. “At one point we imported some computer workstations and servers and all the manuals were in English. His English wasn’t very good, but he would dive into these manuals, check words in the dictionary so he could put the machines together.”
After Ma left Beijing, Wu was one of 18 co-founders who gathered in his Hangzhou apartment in 1999 to create his next venture, Alibaba. “He was a talented young guy who believed in Jack and Jack trusted him,” He said.
A few years later, Ma put him in charge of building Alimama, the advertising engine that would continue to generate revenue for the company’s e-commerce businesses. His tenure there earned him the nickname Mama Wu internally, several employees said.
“Part of the nickname came from setting up Alimama, but it was also because Mama Wu was always taking care of us, fixing bugs or new architectures,” said a former Alimama team member. “He always finds a way to fix it.”
The person added: “As a co-founder close to Ma, he was always able to get us the resources we needed.”
Wu then built the Taobao shopping app, which quickly evolved into a critical part of Chinese consumers’ daily shopping habits. After Alibaba’s New York listing, he became a special assistant to Ma. For a time, he followed Ma everywhere, people close to both men said.
In 2015, Wu retired from Alibaba and led the healthcare business while launching Vision Plus Capital, the venture capital firm established next to Ma’s personal office in the wetlands. The group has supported several Alibaba employees venturing out on their own, such as Qiang Hui of digital health company Come-Future and Jerry Wang of Tuya. It now has more than $1 billion in assets under management, according to filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
Several Alibaba employees suggested that Wu’s investment experience would be beneficial to the group as it transforms into a holding company, responsible for managing profits from Taobao and Tmall.
Wu’s first task will be to reverse the platforms’ decline. Ma is pushing the group to refocus on small and medium-sized Taobao sellers rather than the big brands that dominate Tmall. Last month, he told employees that Alimama, the advertising platform Wu built, was key to the group’s future, according to two people briefed on the meeting.
“The company has been shifting its strategy without achieving anything significant,” an Alibaba executive said. – The main problems lie with the management. Since Jack Ma, there hasn’t been a really good leader,” the person said.
Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing