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Associated Press
Alibaba Group founder and CEO Jack Ma celebrates his company’s listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2007.

Behind behemoth IPO lies unlikely China success story

– The mammoth IPO planned by e-commerce giant Alibaba Group highlights founder Jack Ma’s improbable rise to China’s entrepreneur-in-chief.

Ma, a former English teacher who flunked his college entrance exam twice, founded Alibaba in his apartment in 1999 with 17 friends and $60,000 they had raised. Charismatic by the gray standards of Chinese CEOs, the impish Ma has cult status in China, where he’s seen as the equivalent of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates.

In a country where state-owned enterprises dominate business and many owe their wealth to Communist Party ties, Ma stands out for his huge self-made success. Alibaba, which started as a site to link Chinese manufacturers with buyers overseas, became under Ma an e-commerce behemoth that is now expanding into banking, digital maps and online video.

The paperwork for Alibaba’s initial public offering says it will raise at least $1 billion from the U.S. listing, but finance professionals believe that is a conservative notional figure to get the IPO process rolling. Estimates for the amount that could be raised have ranged from $10 billion to $20 billion. The price at which shares are sold might give Alibaba a market valuation of $200 billion, which is greater than Facebook.

Ma, who owns 8.9 percent of the company, is likely to become even wealthier following the IPO. He’s already worth $8.4 billion, making him China’s fifth-richest person, according to Forbes.

Ma, 49, stepped down as CEO last year, saying in a letter to employees that he’s “no longer young for the Internet business.”

He remains chairman and an important figurehead for the company’s 21,000 employees, though he’s now focusing on philanthropy and recently established a charitable trust potentially worth billions.

“It would be hard to find a private citizen in China who’s had such a big impact on the economy,” said Porter Erisman, maker of a documentary about Alibaba and the company’s former vice president of marketing. “I look at him as the pied piper of entrepreneurs in China. He created this platform, he pushed China online.”

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