In a world that can’t stop talking, a quiet man has emerged to lead one of the planet’s largest multinational companies this week — proving that there is strength in silence.
Daniel Zhang, 47, is the new executive chairman of Alibaba Group, the $460 billion business Jack Ma built from his apartment in 1999.
Zhang ascended to chair after Ma’s epic farewell party for 60,000 on Tuesday, which coincided with his 55th birthday and the company’s 20th anniversary.
Zhang, who was promoted to Chief Executive Officer in 2015, will also retain the role as Alibaba transitions to a new era facing a maturing e-commerce industry in China.
In his speech to staff at the Alibaba 20th anniversary party, Alibaba Group CEO Daniel Zhang offered a vision for the future as he was set to take over as the company’s executive chairman. pic.twitter.com/igJkU9OOHp
— Alibaba Group (@AlibabaGroup) September 10, 2019
Zhang was born and raised in Shanghai, where his father worked as an accountant, according to Bloomberg.
He obtained a bachelor’s degree in finance from the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics before becoming an accountant himself.
Ahead of joining Alibaba, Zhang served as the chief financial officer of Shanda Interactive Entertainment Limited, an online game developer and operator, from 2005 to 2007.
From 2002 to 2005, he worked as a senior manager for PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Audit and Business Advisory Division in Shanghai.
Zhang joined Alibaba in August 2007 after meeting co-founder and Vice Chairman Joseph Tsai. He served as the chief financial officer of Taobao Marketplace until June 2011.
“Daniel really understands business,” Tsai told Bloomberg. “You can’t disrupt unless you really understand what you’re trying to disrupt.”
Alibaba employees pick nicknames for themselves upon joining the company. Zhang chose Xiao Yao Zi, which translates to “Free and Unfettered Man,” according to Forbes.
In August 2008, he took on the additional role of general manager for Tmall.com. He served both functions until his appointment as president of Tmall.com in June 2011, when the site became an independent platform.
He served as Alibaba’s chief operating officer from September 2013 until May 2015, when he was promoted to chief executive officer. Ma initially appointed Jonathan Lu for the position but decided that the role would best be run by someone born in the 1970s and after.
Ma named Zhang as his successor in a letter to customers, employees and shareholders in September 2018.
“After years of hard work, today’s Alibaba has a world-class talent pool in quality and quantity,” Ma wrote. “The teacher in me feels extremely proud of our team, our leadership and our unique mission-driven culture, as well as the fact that we continue to develop exceptional business leaders and professional talent like Daniel Zhang.”
Ma spoke highly of Zhang, whom some employees likely did not even know at the time.
Since Zhang took over as CEO in 2015, “Alibaba has seen consistent and sustainable growth for 13 consecutive quarters,” Ma added. “His analytical mind is unparalleled, he holds dear our mission and vision, he embraces responsibility with passion, and he has the guts to innovate and test creative business models.”
Zhang, however, has been described to have a personality in stark contrast to Ma’s.
While the 55-year-old tech mogul is known for his charismatic leadership and flamboyant style — which brings a rock star stage and a Michael Jackson performance to recent memory — Zhang is a “slight” and “soft-spoken” man who proceeds “haltingly in English during calls with investors,” Bloomberg noted.
He appears to have kept a profile, so low that an employee at Alibaba’s Hangzhou headquarters once mistook him as a janitor, the outlet added.
On Tuesday, the company witnessed a more extroverted side of Zhang as he sang Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” with Ma.
Zhang also appears to be a workaholic, since his typical weekday reportedly “amounts pretty much to work, eat and sleep.”
While he has yet to prove himself as chairman of Asia’s largest company, he already demonstrated potential in his early years with the organization.
According to the South China Morning Post — which Alibaba owns — Zhang is the “key architect” of the company’s Single’s Day, the world’s biggest online shopping spree.
Last year, the event, which falls on Nov. 11, generated its biggest revenue yet — a whopping 213.5 billion yuan (over $30 billion).