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I met Thursday in San Francisco with Daniel Zhang, CEO of Alibaba. Zhang claimed little role in the company’s $7 billion bond offering this week—“I just told them to push the button,” he says—but clearly relishes the prospect of the treasure chest it represents. “We are quite healthy in cash flow,” says Zhang. “But we still need to prepare for growth.”
Zhang is less well known than Jack Ma, Alibaba’s executive chairman and guiding light. But as CEO of the Chinese e-commerce colossus, he oversees its day-to-day operations. I asked him Alibaba’s three biggest opportunities, and he ticked off four.
The first is “new” retail, a reference to Alibaba’s aggressive investment in physical retailer. It’s something of an open Trojan horse strategy, according to Zhang. Alibaba will help physical retailers digitize and in the process bring them onto Alibaba’s e-commerce platform. Keeping them in the Alipay payment fold won’t hurt either.
Alibaba’s (baba) second thrust is global expansion. The company pines for two billion customers, up from its current 500 million in China. Southeast Asia, which shares cultural characteristics with China, is its most important foray, says Zhang. He chuckles when I ask where’s next, noting only that Alibaba has a presence in Russia and Spain and has started up in India by investing in payments rather than e-commerce.
Cloud computing—think Amazon Web Services for China—and filmed entertainment are Alibaba’s other big bets. Alibaba also is an aggressive investor in other businesses, and Zhang articulate the company’s approach. It focuses on areas where it can win new customers, sell its technological logistics services, and acquire new technologies.
I asked Zhang one question he’d like to ask his boss, given that Jack Ma will appear onstage next week at the FORTUNE Global Forum in Guangzhou, China. Like everyone else on the planet, Zhang wants to know what outsized feats Ma will perform next. “In 2016 Jack flew 800 hours,” circling the globe promoting Alibaba and a handful of personal causes. “This year’s he’s flown 1,000. Ask him how many he’ll fly next year.”
A few nuggets to end your week … The San Francisco Chronicle reports that city authorities will begin deploying surge prices for parking spots. It’s an eminently sensible idea. But dig into the details and you’ll see that the city of San Francisco isn’t nearly as nimble as Uber in how quickly it raises and lowers prices … I was fascinated to see that the value of South Africa’s Naspers is $121 billion even though its stake in Chinese gaming and messaging giant Tencent is worth $170 billion. (There’s a tax issue involved, but also a lack of faith in the core Naspers media business) … Finally, here’s another good explainer on what bitcoin is and isn’t.
Have a good weekend.