To celebrate Alibaba’s 18th anniversary in 2017, founder and chairman Jack Ma did a Michael Jackson impression. This year, the company kicked off its 19th year by announcing Ma will step down as chairman and will be succeeded by chief executive officer Daniel Zhang on its 20th anniversary on September 10, 2019.
Ma—the richest man in China—will remain executive chairman for 12 months to “ensure a smooth transition of the chairmanship to Mr. Zhang,” according to the statement. Zhang assumed the role of CEO from Ma in 2013.
The statement also said Ma will complete his term as a member of Alibaba’s board of directors until its annual general meeting of shareholders in 2020.
“When Alibaba was founded in 1999, our goal was to build a company that could make China and the world proud and one that could cross three centuries to last 102 years. However, we all knew that no one could stay with the company for 102 years,” Ma wrote in a letter to customers, employees and shareholders. “No company can rely solely on its founders. Of all people, I should know that. Because of physical limits on one’s ability and energy, no one can shoulder the responsibilities of chairman and CEO forever.”
Ma said this succession plan has been in the works for a decade, and passing the torch to Zhang and his team is the right decision because they are ready.
“Teachers always want their students to exceed them, so the responsible thing to do for me and the company to do is to let younger, more talented people take over in leadership roles so that they inherit our mission ‘to make it easy to do business anywhere,’” Ma, who is also a former English teacher, wrote.
In an interview with Bloomberg last week, Ma spoke of plans to return to education and his charitable foundation and said he would retire earlier than Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who was 58 when he stepped down in 2014.
In a report on Friday, The New York Times noted Ma’s retirement comes as the Chinese government is increasingly playing a more interventionist role with companies and that it is rare for Chinese tycoons to step aside in their 50s.
Forrester analyst Sucharita Kodali also said it is unusual for a founder/CEO with Ma’s success to step down without a very good reason, like being pushed out—as Apple founder Steve Jobs was in the 1980s—or because the government has made life so difficult that it’s time to hand over the reins to others, such as with Gates.
“There is new more restrictive leadership in China now,” Kodali said. “Is it a coincidence that Jack Ma is retiring now? I think not.”
A rep for Alibaba did not respond to a request for comment.