alibaba gives fallen star a fresh start to redeem himself, with mission to win hundreds of millions of new consumers overseas

Alibaba Group Holding has designated Jiang Fan, the retail wunderkind who fell from grace because of a public scandal, to head its overseas e-commerce operations and engage a vast market outside China to fulfil the company’s long-term goal of serving 2 billion consumers worldwide.

The new appointment forms part of the biggest management reshuffle at Hangzhou-based Alibaba and comes more than a year after Jiang, 36, was removed from the company’s elite partnership of 38 people in 2020, following an internal investigation into allegations of improper behaviour.

Jiang, who was president of domestic retail platforms Taobao Marketplace since December 2017 and Tmall since March 2019, will now lead Alibaba’s overseas consumer-facing and wholesale businesses, including cross-border retail platform AliExpress, wholesale trading platform Alibaba.com and Southeast Asian e-commerce platform Lazada Group.

“In the current macroeconomic environment, it’s hard for Taobao and Tmall to show eye-catching results,” said Arch Pei, an independent internet analyst who previously worked at Sinolink Securities. “Overseas markets are where much potential can be found, giving Jiang a chance to show his capability.”

Annual active consumers in Alibaba’s global ecosystem reached 1.24 billion in the 12 months ended September 30, according to company data. That includes 953 million consumers in China and 285 million overseas.

The new role for Jiang, who was demoted to vice-president from senior vice-president of Alibaba in 2020 and forfeited a year’s worth of financial incentives after the internal investigation, is expected to test whether he can replicate his success in the domestic market as head of the company’s International Digital Commerce division.

The stakes are high for Alibaba to grow its business overseas after the company posted an 87 per cent decline in net income for the September quarter, as the company made heavy investments in new businesses and Lazada. The firm’s Singles’ Day promotion in November posted a record haul of 540.3 billion yuan (US$84.5 billion), but the pace of annual growth was slower than previous years.

“Assigning Jiang the international business suggests that Alibaba might step up its content personalisation approach and replicate successful features on Taobao’s ecosystem to Lazada, AliExpress and Alibaba.com to drive future monetisation,” Citigroup analysts led by Alicia Yap wrote in a report.

alibaba gives fallen star a fresh start to redeem himself, with mission to win hundreds of millions of new consumers overseas

Jiang Fan, who joined Alibaba Group Holding in August 2013, now heads the company’s overseas e-commerce operations. Photo: Twitter

On the surface, Jiang’s new role serves as another demotion. In the September quarter, sales at Alibaba’s international e-commerce operations only accounted for 7.5 per cent of the company’s total revenue in that period.

But the relatively low customer base at Alibaba’s international retail operations presents an opportunity for Jiang to redeem himself and prove his value to the company, which paid a record 18.2 billion yuan fine in April to conclude the government’s antitrust investigation of the firm.

Jiang is widely considered as instrumental in shoring up the lead of Alibaba’s Chinese online retail platforms in the world’s biggest e-commerce market against rivals like JD.com and Pinduoduo.

Meanwhile, Alibaba’s China Digital Commerce unit – which includes the Taobao and Tmall businesses that Jiang used to oversee – will now be led by Trudy Dai Shan, one of the company’s founding members and a partner, according to an internal letter published on Monday.

Dai, who has worked across multiple business segments in Alibaba, is known inside the company as Su Quan, one of the most powerful female martial artists in novelist Louis Cha Leung-yung’s kung fu masterpiece The Deer and the Cauldron.

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