Beijing: Jack Ma, China's iconic billionaire and founder of Alibaba, retired on Tuesday as the executive chairman of the e-commerce giant on his 55th birthday, marking the end of an era for his firm in the Communist country.
Born to a poor family, Ma, who is the most revered businessmen among the Chinese people, grew up to become China's richest man.
Ma co-founded Alibaba in 1999 that became one of the world's biggest internet firms.
Alibaba, which has multitude businesses, is now valued at USD 480 billion and Ma was listed by the Forbes magazine last year as China's richest man, with a net worth of USD 39 billion.
Ma had made the surprise announcement of retirement last year, sending shockwaves in his company as well as business circles of the world's second largest economy.
He named the company's Chief Executive Officer, (CEO) Daniel Zhang as his successor while he would continue to be company's Director.
"I think it will be very hard to replace somebody like Jack Ma," Rebecca Fannin, author of a book on China's technology titans, said.
"He is one of a kind. He is the Steve Jobs of China, " Fannin was quoted as saying to the BBC.
Ma's retirement announcement last year sparked off speculation that he may be stepping down due to prevailing business environment in China.
The New York Times in its report soon after the announcement of his retirement last year said Ma is retiring as China's business environment has soured, with Beijing and state-owned enterprises increasingly playing more interventionist roles with companies.
However, Ma refuted the report saying that "gossip has been around us every day for the past 19 years. For someone who has a dream for the future, gossips, rumours, hardships and frustrations will always be part of your life." "To friends, you don't need to explain. To non-friends, the more you explain, the worse the situation becomes," he said.
He sought to justify his retirement plan by saying that he would like to relax and take up cultural and philanthropic activities.
In a quote, which went viral around the world, Ma said he would rather die at a beach than his work table at Alibaba.
"At the age of 54, I am a bit old in the Internet industry, but quite young for many other sectors," he said.
"In the next 15 to 16 years, there's still a lot of things I can do. I know it would be difficult for people at the age of 55 or 56, say 60, to leave. By then you would no longer be sure about your future, and you would hang on," he said.
Ma's retirement comes in the backdrop of Alibaba's big plans to step up its investments in India, especially in commerce to compete with well-entrenched giants like Amazon.
“I was always impressed with his understanding of the Indian tech sector and he has great respect and regard of India. His investments in India have opened the way to combine the strengths of Indian and Chinese tech companies,” Atul Dalakoti, Executive Director of Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), China, told PTI here.
“Ma has the capability to see complex things in a very simple fashion. He had built Alibaba into one of the greatest companies in China," he said.
Dalakoti also noted that Alibaba's affiliate company Ant Finance was also doing well and could become the greatest Chinese company in Fintech.
Though immensely popular among Chinese specially the middle classes, his retirement has not been highlighted much in the official media here.
Reports last year said he was a member of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) like most of the Chinese celebrities.
Ma is a strident defender of the Chinese President Xi Jinping, regarded as the most powerful leader heading the party, the presidency and the military under whose leadership the government has expanded its controls over business.
Ma told BBC last year "if they (Facebook or Twitter) come here they have to say OK, I follow the Chinese rules and laws".
But he quickly added that "I'm not in government, I cannot speak on behalf of the government." Ma's success and colourful style has made him one of China's most recognisable businessman.
A recent report in the state run Global Times said despite rising concerns about Alibaba's business potential in the post-Ma period, Chinese experts said they believed in the company's preponderance over domestic competitors.
They also believed more Alibabas and more Jack Mas will emerge in China, thanks to the country's opening-up and rising innovation.
"Ma's position as Alibaba's spiritual leader would not change even after Tuesday, Liu Xingliang, director of the Beijing-based Data Centre of China Internet, told the Global Times on Monday.
"His influence will remain and he will still steer Alibaba in the company's general strategy and business direction," he said.
"Companies like Alibaba can pop up only under the condition of opening-up," Ye Hang, an economics professor at the College of Economics of Zhejiang University, told the Global Times.
"How can such private businesses start and grow, even beyond the border, in a planned economy?" he said.
Zhang Yi, CEO of Shenzhen-based iiMedia Research, said, "Ma is also a hero produced by the times". (PTI)