Last May, 40,000 Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. employees and customers met at a Hangzhou soccer stadium in driving rain to watch Jack Ma step down as chief executive of the Chinese e-commerce giant he founded in his apartment 15 years ago.
去年5月份，中国电子商务巨头阿里巴巴集团(Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.)的4万名员工和客户聚首杭州的一个体育中心，在雨中见证了马云(Jack Ma)卸任阿里巴巴首席执行长(CEO)一幕。15年前，马云在他的公寓里创建了阿里巴巴。
Before his valedictory speech, Mr. Ma belted out the Chinese pop song 'I Love You, China,' from the stage. The crowd roared.
'Taking over from Jack Ma is a difficult job,' he said, dressed in oversize glasses and a shiny silver jacket.
The three-hour extravaganza was a testament to the central role the 49-year-old Mr. Ma played -- and continues to play -- in what is arguably the world's biggest e-commerce company. Some employees describe the charismatic Mr. Ma as Alibaba's spiritual leader.
As Alibaba prepares to submit its first major filings to go public as early as this week in what could be one of the largest initial public offerings in U.S. history, Mr. Ma -- now executive chairman -- still looms large in the company's dealings.
'I thought it would be easier when I stepped down from CEO, but now I'm finding out being a chairman, if you want to be a good chairman, is much busier than being a CEO,' Mr. Ma told The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Ma's success has given him celebrity status in China, where bookstore shelves stock his biographies and airports replay clips of his motivational speeches on business management.
Alibaba, the largest e-commerce company in the world's most populous company, dwarfs its U.S. counterparts. In 2013, the combined transaction volume of its Taobao e-commerce marketplace and another Alibaba-run shopping site called Tmall reached $240 billion, according to a person with knowledge of the figure. That is triple the size of eBay Inc., more than double the size of Amazon.com Inc. Alipay, Alibaba's online payment platform, last year handled more than triple the amount of mobile payments processed by PayPal.
作为中国这个全球人口最多国家的最大电子商务公司，阿里巴巴令美国同行相形见绌。知情人士透露，2013年该公司旗下的购物网站淘宝和天猫的总交易额达到了2,400亿美元。这相当于eBay Inc.的三倍，亚马逊公司(Amazon.com Inc.)的两倍多。阿里巴巴的在线支付平台支付宝(Alipay)去年的移动支付处理量是贝宝(PayPal)的三倍多。
Even after the expected multibillion-dollar IPO, Alibaba's corporate structure will allow Mr. Ma, who owns about 7% of the company, to have a say in nominating more than half of its board. Mr. Ma also owns 46% of the holding company that controls Alipay.
Mr. Ma has been at the center of Alibaba's efforts to expand beyond e-commerce. Vehicles in which Mr. Ma owns a stake have invested in Chinese finance and media companies -- in at least one case using loans from Alibaba.
Such deals may raise questions about whether Mr. Ma would ever prioritize his own investments over the interest of Alibaba shareholders, said Paul McKenzie, an analyst at Hong Kong-based brokerage CLSA. Mr. Ma didn't comment on his investments.
Even though he is no longer CEO, Mr. Ma remains the face of Alibaba. As the e-commerce company expands further into financial services, Mr. Ma has traded barbs with some of China's big banks.
In an interview with the state-run People's Daily last year, Mr. Ma said China's banks aren't lending to the country's small businesses: 'I see there are 80% of the clients that are not covered.'
At a conference last month, China Minsheng Bank Corp. Chairman Dong Wenbiao defended the current banking system and questioned Alibaba's financial ambitions. 'I said to Jack Ma, 'Give up your reform efforts. You don't have the ability,' ' Mr. Dong said.
在上个月举行的一次会议上，民生银行(China Minsheng Bank Corp.)董事长董文标维护了目前的银行体系并对阿里巴巴的金融野心提出质疑。董文标说：我跟马云说，你不要都革命了，你也没那本事。
Mr. Ma was born in Hangzhou, a city of 2.4 million people near Shanghai. His parents were performers of a traditional Chinese musical theater called pingtan. He came of age during China's economic flowering in the 1980s, learning English while an unpaid tour guide to foreign visitors.
After twice failing China's national university entrance exam, Mr. Ma was accepted to Hangzhou Teacher's Institute and graduated in 1988. As the economy improved in the early 1990s, Mr. Ma began looking beyond teaching for work in business. He has said he was rejected for a number of jobs, including as a manager at a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
During a 1995 trip to Seattle as a translator for a trade delegation, Mr. Ma went online for the first time. When he saw how scant information was about China, he set out to create his own company. That year, Mr. Ma started China Pages, an online directory of Chinese companies; Alibaba followed in 1999.
Colleagues say Mr. Ma -- who is married with a son and daughter -- loves performing. At Alibaba's annual 'Alifest' conferences for customers and media, Mr. Ma has in past years shared the stage with former President Bill Clinton, Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
同事们称，马云喜欢表演。他已经结婚，育有一子一女。在客户及媒体参加的阿里巴巴年度网商大会上，过去几年马云曾与美国前总统克林顿(Bill Clinton)、洛杉矶湖人队球星科比(Kobe Bryant)和演员施瓦辛格(Arnold Schwarzenegger)同台。
Mr. Ma has 'that ability, even in a room of 600 people, to make people think [he is] talking to one person, to you,' said Duncan Clark, a longtime acquaintance and tech consultant based in Beijing.
Mr. Ma's eccentric performances and his ability to motivate a crowd have helped build a cultlike following among Alibaba employees. At the company's Hangzhou headquarters, Mr. Ma has blessed hundreds of newlywed Alibaba employees in wedding attire during an annual ritual.
Mr. Ma's decisiveness and his willingness to take big risks helped the company overcome challenges, colleagues said.
When eBay Inc. entered China in 2002 by teaming up with a local shopping site, Mr. Ma developed Taobao to compete head-on with the U.S. company.
'Jack said that the best defense is offense,' said Joe Tsai, Alibaba's executive vice chairman.
Mr. Ma also decided that Taobao should let merchants sell without paying listing or transaction fees, even though his first website -- Alibaba.com -- was barely breaking even. The no-fee model allowed Taobao to attract sellers quickly, and the business soon overtook eBay's Chinese market. Taobao later figured out ways to generate revenue through advertising.
In 2009, when the global financial crisis hit small Chinese merchants who were using Alibaba.com to find overseas buyers, company executives -- including David Wei, Alibaba.com's then CEO -- proposed cutting fees by as much as half.
'Jack said if merchants disappear there will be no Alibaba,' Mr. Wei recalled. 'Jack didn't even think for a second.'
Cutting fees helped Alibaba.com weather the financial crisis and led to a jump in users, pushing up its net profit by 45% in 2010 over 2009.
Although Mr. Ma started Alibaba with little background in business or technology, he knew enough to pick the right people.
马云推出阿里巴巴几个月后，他聘用了台湾出生、耶鲁毕业的律师蔡崇信。从1999年从高盛集团(Goldman Sachs Group Inc.)获得第一笔500万美元投资到广受期待的美国上市，蔡崇信在阿里巴巴的筹资和收购活动中发挥了重要作用。
Several months after he launched Alibaba, Mr. Ma hired Mr. Tsai, a Taiwanese-born, Yale-educated lawyer. Mr. Tsai has played a central role in Alibaba's fundraising and acquisitions, from the first $5 million investment by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in 1999 to the widely anticipated U.S. IPO.
Current and former colleagues say Mr. Ma makes decisions with gut instinct.
In late 2004, when Alibaba decided to launch Alipay, Mr. Ma flew to Guangzhou to visit Jonathan Lu, Alibaba's current chief executive, who was then the head of a regional sales team.