If you live in China, “you’re going to be touching the companies that Jack founded pretty much every day, and almost every hour in some cases,” Clark said.
It’s more than just using an app or an online shopping website that Ma helped build. A massive number of Chinese “associate these products with the last 10 years of rising prosperity,” Clark said. “There’s an emotional element to it.”
Ma created Alipay — the payments business that forms the backbone of Ant — as a side project to plug a hole in China’s nascent online shopping industry. Before Alipay was created, inefficient state-run banks with reputations for poor customer service were the only options available for most businesses and consumers. A convenience store owner who needed a few hundred dollars to get through the month would likely not have bothered going to the bank to get a loan because it would have been too troublesome, said Zennon Kapron, founder of financial technology consulting and research firm Kapronasia.
Ant changed all that.
“[Ma’s] vision from the very beginning was to enable people to essentially do better and give them the tools to do that,” said Kapron.
Through Ant, people can apply for and get decisions on small loans quickly. They can also can pay for things with the tap of a button and they can invest in big money market funds with as little as 1 yuan (15 cents).
Ant’s market debut will make Ma a lot richer
Ma’s accomplishments are well known in China.
Edith Yeung, China internet expert and general partner with Race Capital, rattled off a list of hurdles that should have stood in the way of his success: He is short, grew up during China’s turbulent Cultural Revolution, had no family connections, didn’t have an Ivy League degree and founded Alibaba in 1999, two years before the dotcom bubble burst.
Ma represents “the ultimate Chinese dream,” Yeung said. That “somebody like him, with all the wrong formula [for success] can get to this point, it’s just amazing and astonishing,” she said.
“Chinese people look up to him because he looks just like us and he [achieved] mega success, Silicon Valley-style,” she added.
Ma is already the wealthiest man in China, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index and the most recent Hurun China Rich List published last week. Ant’s IPO will make him even richer.
Ma — who has “ultimate control” over Ant — will hold an 8.8% stake in the company worth more than $27 billion post-IPO, according to regulatory filings.
Ant’s market debut will also mark the second time Ma has spearheaded a world record shattering IPO.
“We didn’t dare to think about it five years ago, or even three years ago,” Ma said, calling it “a miracle” that such a huge IPO can now take place in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Ant’s IPO also comes as a growing number of Chinese companies have been seeking refuge on national exchanges as tensions between Washington and Beijing ramp up.
“It’s kind of ironic validation to do [part of the Ant] listing in Hong Kong. It’s perfect timing to stick it in the eye of the United States as well,” said Clark.
Beyond regulatory evolutions, Ma has also overseen dramatic changes in China’s internet industry. The tech tycoon learned about the internet during a trip to the United States in 1995. Invigorated by the technology, Ma returned to China, where the internet was still virtually unknown.
The Henry Ford of China
Measuring Ma’s impact against his contemporaries, “he ranks right up there … next to Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos,” Kapron said.
Clark, the author, goes back further in time, likening Ma to American industrialist and business magnate Henry Ford.
“In terms of Henry Ford’s standardized production, you can think about that in terms of the logistics of the Alibaba empire, and retail, and now with Ant’s [impact on China’s] finance. Those are three big sectors right there that he’s linked in new ways and revolutionized,” he said.
Ma stepped down from his role as chairman of Alibaba last year, and has over the years increasingly turned his focus to philanthropic efforts in China and Africa.
He has pledged to donate 611 million of his Ant shares to charitable donations.