A Fireside Chat with Joe Tsai

“You can do anything in life as long as you have the passion, the drive and the focus.”

– Sabrina Bryan

On November 14, Joe Tsai came to speak to the AGLA class as part of our AGLA speaker series, which had already brought several WEF Young Global Leaders to speak to us. I was particularly excited to hear Joe Tsai speak, for two reasons. One, his career path was an inspiration to me, as I had also started as a lawyer, moved to private equity, and then to Alibaba. Two, Joe had been with Alibaba practically since the beginning, joining in 1999 when Alibaba was still just a scrappy startup working out of Jack Ma’s apartment.

Joe is a remarkably unassuming but also incredibly intelligent and incisive individual. He spoke with remarkable clarity on a range of topics, including Alibaba’s globalization strategy, the recent Double 11 Global Shopping Festival, the qualities of a good teacher that translate well into the business world, and how to sustain the values that have made Alibaba great as it continues to grow.

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Perhaps one of the most interesting topics Joe talked about was his view of what qualities Jack Ma had, as an excellent teacher, which translated well into being a great business leader. I had wondered about that, myself: it seems almost counter intuitive that an English teacher with no business background should have ended up founding a company that had come to dominate China’s e-commerce and become a center of innovation in a range of diverse fields such as logistics, payments, and cloud computing. Joe spoke of three qualities that Jack brought to leading Alibaba: firstly, the ability to communicate well, which any good teacher must have and any good business leader must develop if he or she intends to convince others to follow them; secondly, the desire to nurture students and see them excel, since talent development and retention is one of the most important—if not the most important task—of a CEO; and lastly, humility, because it’s easy to become egotistical and self-centered after achieving success, but that attitude can make it extremely difficult to recruit and retain good people.

To a class full of prospective leaders, these observations provide a concrete benchmark by which we can assess our development as leaders, and I for one will be reflecting on how well I embody these qualities as I continue my journey in the AGLA program.

Continuing on this theme of leadership and values, Joe also spoke on the importance of sustaining Alibaba’s core values as the company globalizes: customer first, teamwork, embrace change, integrity, passion, and commitment. At Alibaba, a great deal of this is done through the many Aliren—employees who have been with the company for more than 3 years—who have internalized these values and who serve as day-to-day role models for newer employees. Yet above and beyond this, reflecting the importance Alibaba places on culture, there is the partnership, some 32 individuals who serve as a living embodiment of those values and who are able to inspire others to live those values.

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Turning towards the balance of organic growth and inorganic—acquisitions-driven—growth at Alibaba, Joe, who is responsible for strategic investments at Alibaba, noted that strategic acquisitions and minority investments are a key element of Alibaba’s global strategy, given that developing deep local expertise in markets as distinctive as India, Thailand and Indonesia within the Alibaba Group is likely to be extremely difficult. He emphasized the need to partner with a management team that has deep local expertise, an emphasis that strikes me—coming from a long career in private equity—as very private equity-like, except without the intense pressure to exit after 3 – 5 years.

 Finally, but not least, we learned about Joe’s thoughts on the Double 11 Global Shopping Festival. The festival showed the direction of retail in the future, with a gradual blurring of the lines between online and offline retail, and the use of augmented reality to drive foot traffic to offline stores. Joe also noted that the scale of the festival, with 650 million deliveries expected to be made as a result of orders made during the festival, is a testament to the strength of Alibaba’s ecosystem. Had Alibaba tried to build its own in-house delivery and warehousing division, it would have been impossible to scale to handle this many packages, but by building a platform and ecosystem to support the development of partner logistics companies it was possible to have the capacity to handle this staggering volume. The 2016 Double 11 Global Shopping Festival is also, in his view, the time that Alibaba’s vision of internationalizing the festival has finally become reality, with the participation of international celebrities and brands in this event and growing international interest in this event.

Lucas Kwok Ting Lee

Lucas is a former lawyer, private equity investor, and recent MBA graduate. He loves adventures, fine whisky, and deep intellectual conversations.

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