Alibaba started as an online marketplace for businesses to sell their products to other businesses. But it did not take off until it began the Taobao marketplace in 2003, which merchants used to sell goods directly to consumers. Alibaba later rolled out Alipay, an online payment service, to facilitate transactions in a country where few people had credit cards. Alipay later became Ant Financial, the financial subsidiary that Mr. Ma also controls.
Today, Alibaba’s empire encompasses e-commerce, online banking, cloud computing, digital media and entertainment — and even a corporate messaging service similar to Slack. The company owns or holds stakes in some of China’s most important media assets, including the Twitter-like social media site Weibo and the Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper The South China Morning Post.
Among China’s biggest companies, Alibaba is viewed as one of the firms with the deepest ranks of management talent. Many of the co-founders are still around, and professionals who joined the company later are now in charge.
Last month, Alibaba reported a 60 percent increase in quarterly sales, even as profits fell. The company’s annual revenue totals about 250 billion yuan, or $40 billion.
While Alibaba has become dominant in China, it has faced a tougher time expanding internationally. The company has increased its presence outside of China by investing in e-commerce and online finance companies in India and Southeast Asia. But its efforts to muscle into the United States largely have not been successful.
Even after Mr. Ma met with President-elect Donald J. Trump in early 2017 and promised to bring one million jobs to the United States, the federal government rejected Ant Financial’s bid to acquire the American money transfer company MoneyGram this year over national security concerns.
As Beijing has increased its involvement in the private sector, Mr. Ma has shifted what he has said about China’s government. He used to say that businesses should be in love with the government but never get married to each other, indicating that an arms-length relationship was preferred.
At a conference last November, Mr. Ma was more positive. “There’s no country like China in the world,” he said. “With political stability, social safety and 6 percent-plus economic growth, we have the best business environment.”
As Alibaba has flourished, Mr. Ma has talked many times about how he did not want to spend his whole life at the company, saying he would retire one day and go back to teaching.
In 2014, he created the Jack Ma Foundation, which has worked to improve education in rural China. Mr. Ma’s Weibo social media handle is “spokesman for village teachers — Jack Ma.” Within Alibaba, he is known and referred to as “Teacher Ma.”
In an interview with Bloomberg TV this week, Mr. Ma signaled he was thinking about focusing more on philanthropy. He cited the Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates as an example.
Mr. Ma said he could never be as rich as Mr. Gates — but that he could retire earlier than Mr. Gates. Mr. Gates stepped down as Microsoft’s chairman in 2014, at the age of 58.