Meet Jack Ma, the man who might just buy Yahoo

He's already got China, and now he wants more, report Clifford Coonan in Beijing and Stephen Foley in New York

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Could Jack Ma, the man feted in China as the country's smartest chief executive, be about to become one of the most powerful figures in the world of technology? The man behind Alibaba, the giant Chinese internet company, is plotting an audacious bid for Yahoo, in what would be a dramatic reversal of fortune. Just six years ago, Yahoo invested $1bn (£646m) in Mr Ma's company, which was looking for cash and know-how from the West; now Alibaba is trying to buy Yahoo, which finds itself in crisis and up for sale.

Acquiring Yahoo would put the Hangzhou-born Mr Ma, 47, in charge of the largest email provider on the planet, a portfolio of websites that includes Flickr photo sharing as well as all the Yahoo-branded news and entertainment sites, and one of the most widely used online advertising networks.

Mr Ma didn't hesitate when he was asked the question at a conference in California at the weekend: Yes, he was "very interested" in buying Yahoo. "The whole piece of Yahoo. China is already ours, right? It's already in my pocket... Alibaba is so important to Yahoo and Yahoo is very important to us, to the internet users and to the industries... We are probably one of the very few companies that really understand Yahoo USA very well."

So, who is this man who would be king of the internet? He was an English teacher to start with, after gaining a degree from Hangzhou Teachers Institute in 1988, but it wasn't long until he was working his way up what was then the newly designed Chinese corporate ladder.

He is a real visionary in a country where people capable of "thinking outside the box" are in short supply, and has been hailed as China's smartest chief executive by everyone from the Chinese government to Fortune magazine.

Over the course of his career, Mr Ma has shown an ability to negotiate the tricky path between the rigours of the highly competitive private sector and the demands of the Communist Party keen to keep oversight and control of the emerging world of the internet. He personifies China's reformist side, and is a key character in the country's efforts to boost its "soft power" and reassure the rest of the world that China's remarkable economic rise of recent years is an opportunity, not a threat, for other countries. That hope will be put to the test if politicians and regulators in the US and other regions have to approve an Alibaba takeover of Yahoo.

Mr Ma founded China Pages in 1995, which is generally agreed to be China's first internet company. Rather than rushing ahead, Mr Ma played it strategically and headed up the information department of the China International Electronic Commerce Centre (CIECC), part of the powerful Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation (Moftec). It was only in early 1999 that he left the ministry to launch, his connections in government secure.

Alibaba was forged during what were still dark days in the Chinese IT world, when he was forced to tinker with an unfeasibly slow internet connection that took nearly four hours to download a page.

Now, though, the company is the world's largest business-to-business marketplace for global trade, worth £20.6bn by some reckonings, and is host to China's leading domestic B2B trade community, largely due to Mr Ma's vision. A subsidiary, Taobao, is China's largest online marketplace with more than 800 million product listings and 370 million registered users. Alipay, a former Alibaba subsidiary which was transferred to Mr Ma's ownership recently, sparking a dispute with Yahoo, is an online payments system akin to PayPal. Forbes magazine puts Mr Ma among the top 50 wealthiest people in China, with a fortune worth $1.6bn.

You don't get to that level of success without being a tough negotiator and competitor, and his recent battles with rival Baidu, a Google-like search engine in China, have been epic, and his relationship with Yahoo – which still owns 43 per cent of Alibaba – has been fraught with conflict. The dispute over the ownership of Alipay, which Mr Ma says had to be transferred from under Yahoo's nose in order for it to win proper business licences in China, is symptomatic of a wider power struggle. Alibaba has made no secret of its determination to buy Yahoo out of its stake, although Yahoo's board rebuffed an offer. Carol Bartz, chief executive of Yahoo until last month, was criticised heavily by investors for allowing relations with the Chinese to deteriorate. Many analysts think Yahoo's stakes in Alibaba and in Yahoo Japan are worth more than the rest of the company put together.

After months of criticism, Ms Bartz was fired last month and the company, now leaderless as well as rudder-less, is conducting a strategic review that could include selling itself in whole or in part to some of the bidders circling. As well as Mr Ma, Silver Lake Partners, a private equity firm, and Peter Chernin, Rupert Murdoch's former deputy at News Corp, have expressed interest. At the China 2.0 conference at Stanford University in California, Mr Ma said the number of possible permutations made a deal difficult, and it would certainly be time-consuming. "It's more complicated than we thought," he said. "There's so many people interested in that. And we are also talking to them and they are talking to us."

Yahoo shares jumped more than 4 per cent amid all the speculation yesterday. As for Mr Ma, he is broadening his horizons and his ambitions. Some of them have their esoteric side. He recently announced that he was setting up a taichi school with the martial arts movie star Jet Li, to encourage people to embrace the graceful exercises as more than something fusty and traditional and only practiced by old people.

Mainly, though, they are focused on expanding his business interests, his personal fortune and his status as one of the world's visionary technology leaders. He told the California audience that he was moving to the US for the next year, with plans to relax, play a little golf and do a lot of networking, to learn about the country and its economy. And, it is now clear, to try to buy Yahoo.